An MP has blasted a free school run by a college group for creating competition in a way that led to Cornwall College cutting its A-level offer.
Steve Double, Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay, told the House of Commons last night that the opening of Callywith College, run by an academy trust set up by Truro and Penwith College, had had a “detrimental impact” on neighbouring Cornwall College. Choice for students would not be improved if the opening of a new institution resulted in the college in their own town stopping the provision of A-level courses, he added.
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Drop in uptake
It was announced in August that Cornwall College would be removing its A-level provision from its St Austell campus, due to a decrease in uptake to about 100 learners over the two years.
Mr Double said Cornwall College had “faced a number of fairly substantial challenges in recent years, largely through poor leadership and financial mismanagement”, but government support of £30 million had helped the college restructure its finances and put it on a more secure footing.
However, he said the college’s challenges persisted, and some of these were “the result of a new college, Callywith College, opening in Bodmin just a few years ago”. The college’s opening had led to Cornwall College in St Austell “haemorrhaging A-level students to the Bodmin campus”. There were also plans by Truro and Penwith College to expand its provision in Bodmin and to change the status of Callywith College into a free school to enable that expansion.
“We were told that the reason for Callywith opening was that it would expand the choice of provision across Cornwall,” Mr Double told MPs. “At the time, I had grave reservations about the impact that the new college would have on the Cornwall College campus in St Austell and, sadly, my concerns have proved to be well founded.”
The decision, the MP said, had left in doubt the future of long-term provision of A-level courses in St Austell. “It cannot be acceptable that the town with the largest population in Cornwall does not have A-level provision locally. At a time when we are encouraging our young people to stay in further education until they are 18, this decision is unhelpful in trying to achieve that end.”
He said many potential students could be put off doing A levels if they faced longer commutes, and the loss of the A-level courses would be “detrimental to social mobility for the young people of St Austell”.
He welcomed the government’s promise of extra funding for education, and stressed the provision of further education across Cornwall “needs to be reviewed and looked at strategically”.
'Severe financial problems'
In March, FE commissioner Richard Atkins recommended Truro and Penwith and Cornwall colleges should work closer together with an eye to merging at a later date. His intervention followed financial difficulties at Cornwall College, which "started to experience severe financial problems" in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 financial years. A fall in student numbers has also hampered the colleges' financial health.
Responding to Mr Double's concerns, education minister Michelle Donelan stressed that the decision of which qualifications to offer was down to individual colleges. She also said Cornwall College’s A-level provision dropped to around 100 learners and was making a loss.
Furthermore, a stocktake by the FE commissioner questioned the quality of the learner experience with such low numbers. “When the college took the decision to stop its A-level provision, it worked with other providers in the area to ensure that all applicants had a suitable destination to study. To be clear, no current student will suffer,” she said.
A spokesperson from Truro and Penwith College said:
"There are a number of misunderstandings in Steve Double’s remarks. For example; less than 10 per cer cent of Callywith College learners live in St Austell, with much larger numbers from the area attending Truro College. Department for Education (DfE) data demonstrates that the decline in A level students at Cornwall College long predates the introduction of Callywith.
"Callywith’s location was chosen to serve those areas of Cornwall that DfE data showed to be least well served by existing provision. It was on that basis that it secured major investment from government in Cornwall’s post 16 offer. The College was primarily created to support capacity challenges at Truro, which was full and at risk of rationing provision. Excessive demand for places at Truro was caused by huge growth in applications from young people in North and East Cornwall. This is where most of Callywith’s learners, now numbering 1100 after just two years of operation, have come from. Callywith has helped to reduce travel times for these learners, many of whom were travelling up to four hours a day to access their provider of choice as they seek social mobility and to improve their life chances.
"Truro and Penwith College invested a quarter of the £32 million funding required for Callywith College, with the DfE making a £24 million investment in Cornwall’s young people. The College is in fact already a free school that is seeking permission for expansion through full transfer to Truro and Penwith College. This move would avoid rationing of provision and deliver the DfE’s future priorities such as T levels and Institute of Technology courses, both of which are designed to boost productivity and social mobility."