Three years ago Hadlow college was on its knees. Condemned as failing by Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate, its student numbers were plummeting and it was almost bankrupt. Buildings were dilapidated and senior management was selling off parts of its property just to keep the college running.
Today, this specialist agriculture and horticulture college, on a 256-hectare estate in the heart of Kent, has made a phenomenal recovery. In its latest inspection in December, it rose from grade 4 to grade 2 in all areas and was declared a good college.
It has also managed to fend off a threatened merger while millions of pounds have been ploughed into improvements and resources. Its experience could be seen as a textbook example of how to manage a fast turn-around of a failing college. Hadlow's senior management team is now called in by other institutions seeking advice on quality improvement.
For its principal, Paul Hannan, it was a case of "in at the deep end". He was promoted from vice-principal to acting principal in July 2002. "Right across the college, there were serious problems," he said. "Quality was a major problem, finances, under-investment in resources, the structure of the college, quality systems. There wasn't anything you could look at that said 'this is working'.
"The whole senior management team had left. I had a clean piece of paper. I had to change the college, to introduce a completely new structure while maintaining student recruitment, achievement and success."
He began by making more than 60 of 200 staff redundant and set about putting new structures in place for quality, finance and resources as well as restructuring the curriculum.
Mr Hannan decided that, rather than calling in consultants to compile thousands of pages of analysis at considerable cost, he would bring in expertise from further education. The college made a series of new appointments. Its young, senior management team included the director of finance and resources, Mark Lumsdon-Taylor. With his background in corporate finance in the City, he was appalled by the state of the college's finances when he first set foot on the campus.
"The college estate was extremely dilapidated," he said. "There had been no investment in buildings or resources for many years. The college had quite significant losses, up to half a million a year. And it had negative reserves. It had no money to re-invest and was asset-stripping itself."
Shortly after the new management took over, the Learning and Skills Council for Kent and Medway began a strategic area review of the agricultural colleges. This was the best thing that could have happened, says Mr Lumsdon-Taylor. "It gave the college two years," he said.
The new team began by borrowing several million pounds. They began to invest heavily in marketing to reverse the decline in student numbers.
Management also made full use of grants. As the college began to make a surplus, money was re-invested. So far, pound;4.5 million has been put back into buildings and resources, with a further pound;10m investment planned over the next three years.
The number of full-time FE students has nearly doubled to 600, while higher education has increased from 250 to nearly 400. There are now 1,500 part-time students - up by 20 per cent. Student retention, achievement and success rates have all increased year-on-year since 200203, and are now above national benchmarks.
The LSC's strategic area review had said that Hadlow needed to merge, but in December 2004 this was rejected by the college's board.
"By then, we had become financially viable," says Paul Hannan. "Our quality and achievement was the best in the county and the South-east."
The board continued to resist, and merger plans have been dropped.
Another issue to overcome was the college's insularity. Before 2002 it had developed few links with employers. Hadlow college now houses businesses including Produced in Kent, an outlet for local food producers, as well as a fully-functioning farm and garden centre.
The college also has a partnership with Barclays Bank to develop rural business studies courses.
It wants a third of its income to come from commercial operations, with the rest coming from further and higher education.
Hadlow has developed its curriculum with an eye firmly on the changing rural economy, introducing a range of new programmes at HNC, HND, foundation degree and degree level, including medicinal horticulture, fish husbandry and sustainable land management.
Another area it aims to move into is that of demonstrating building sustainability and energy conservation.
"The issue is a perception that the land-based sector is disappearing in many ways," says Mr Hannan.
"But what we have done is to look very closely at our curriculum, strategy and employer links and we have diversified - still keeping our traditional stuff but moving into other areas."
He believes Hadlow college's experience confounds those who say a small, failing college cannot be turned around quickly. "There was always a feeling that, if you're small, you can't do it," he said.
"I don't believe that. I think it's got something to do with the leadership and management and the people in the organisation, the team you actually have."