Months of planning end in heartache and acrimony

Bid to unite North East colleges in single FE powerhouse fails

Stephen Exley

From the outside, it appeared to be the perfect marriage: a union of two neighbouring colleges to create a single FE powerhouse in the North East.

Just four months ago, it was announced that plans to merge Northumberland College with NCG, formerly known as the Newcastle College Group, had provisionally been given the go-ahead. But before the relationship had even been consummated, it emerged last week that the all-too-brief love affair had come to a premature - and acrimonious - end.

Pending final approval from business secretary Vince Cable, Northumberland was poised to join the NCG stable - already comprising Newcastle and West Lancashire colleges, along with Sheffield-based skills provider Intraining - in January. Officials believed that the rapidly growing NCG would provide the financial muscle to secure the future of Northumberland, one of the colleges worst-affected by the collapse of the former Learning and Skills Council's capital funding programme in 2009. Northumberland's #163;200 million redevelopment scheme was left in tatters; in the same year, industrial unrest also hit the beleaguered institution when it announced plans to make redundancies in a bid to balance the books.

Initially, the merger was welcomed with effusive mutual back-slapping. "NCG is widely recognised as the best in the FE sector and we are very excited at the prospect of gaining access to their outstanding support and expertise," Northumberland's chair of governors, Linda Ions, said. Her counterpart at Newcastle, Jamie Martin, described the merger as a "great opportunity for NCG", which would benefit the "mutual interests of the students and communities we serve".

But while the happy couple were keen to portray themselves as love's young dream, the warning signs of trouble in paradise were there for all to see. In the public consultation, 63 per cent of respondents opposed the plans. Earlier this month, a leaked report to Northumberland's governing body revealed deep concerns about being excluded from communications between NCG and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). Governors raised concerns about NCG's alleged plans to sell off at least one of its campuses, which "calls into question whether or not NCG are committed to serving the education and training needs of Northumberland". The report also criticised NCG's "very poor" communications throughout the "badly managed" process.

While NCG still insisted it was "totally committed" to the merger, the point of no return was quickly approaching. Last week the unthinkable happened - Northumberland formally pulled the plug, arguing that NCG's offer had "materially changed". An email to staff by acting principal Chris Todd, seen by TES, said he was "delighted" the corporation had taken the "bold decision".

"Students, staff and stakeholders did not want this merger to happen. The corporation has listened to these concerns and made the right choice in the interests of Northumberland," Mr Todd said. "Northumberland College has a strong business plan going forward and we have demonstrated substantial improvement over the last 12 months."

The move was welcomed by University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt. "NCG has gained an unfortunate reputation for treating both those who work for it and the communities it serves with contempt," she said.

In response, NCG came out all guns blazing, expressing surprise that the "struggling" college had rejected #163;25 million of investment over the next four years. It said the only change in its offer was to "substantially" increase the funding to tackle "problems with the existing Northumberland College estate" and funding cuts.

"No similar-sized, or indeed any, alternative offers of investment have been made by any other party, leaving the college's financial future in question," a spokesman added.

And while opponents of the merger have been quick to attribute NCG's criticisms to sour grapes, the concerns it raised over Northumberland's future are shared by SFA chief executive Geoff Russell. "I am of the view that it would have been a good solution for Northumberland," he told TES, "but the governors of Northumberland decided to take a different view. It's their college, and it's up to them to decide what they want to do with it."

He described the institution as "struggling a little bit", before ominously adding: "We need to have confidence in the board and governors of the college if we are to continue to give them funding." But while some may have doubts about how Northumberland will cope with the single life, at least one thing is certain: it will remain master of its own destiny.


- Northumberland on NCG

"It has become clear in recent months that NCG do not have the leadership capacity we originally thought they had. The merger process since April 2011 has lacked effective project planning, while communications with the principal, chair and corporation have been very poor."

"The continued pursuance of the merger and, specifically, the behaviour of NCG continue to have a negative impact on the reputation of Northumberland College."

- NCG on Northumberland

"NCG operate Newcastle College, which is the highest performing general FE college in England. As of January 2011, the league tables for results at 16-18 revealed Newcastle College to be in first place, in contrast to Northumberland College in 155th place."

"Current student data reveals that Newcastle College, operated by NCG, recruits more students from Northumberland than Northumberland College does itself."

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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