Capital crisis college faces four-month lifeline wait

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Future of Brooklands' sixth-form campus unclear as Learning and Skills Council enters talks to make amends for `inept' funding management

Brooklands College is waiting to hear if it will receive a financial lifeline after suspending plans to close the campus of a sixth-form college it merged with just two years ago.

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) said that it was in talks to see how much cash would be needed to ensure the college was financially viable, although the closure of some provision is still likely.

Last month, Weybridge-based Brooklands became the first college to see provision threatened because the LSC encouraged it to run up costs in preparing for new buildings, despite the capital budget having been spent.

Answering concerns from the National Union of Students (NUS) Geoff Russell, LSC chief executive, said: "The LSC has been clear with all colleges that it will support those which are in difficult financial situations as a result of capital developments. The LSC is actively involved with the college to determine the support required."

Previously, the LSC has only guaranteed that no college will be allowed to go bankrupt as a result of bills run up due to the capital shortage.

Steve Hutchinson, acting principal at the college after Colin Staff took early retirement, said he did not yet know the full extent of its cash shortfall and its need for support. That would depend on how much provision was retained at the college, a matter that is now the subject of a four-month review.

But it lost pound;11 million invested in preparatory work for the planned new campus after the capital funding, and its chance to recoup costs, ran out. Mr Hutchinson said its total debt was only pound;3 million, with its reserves having been wiped out by the remaining costs.

"When we came here, we wanted to start with a blank sheet of paper. From my experience, you need to look at the whole college provision. I didn't want to be bound by a decision that had already been made," he said.

"We have to communicate as much as possible with staff. We are being open, honest and transparent about the process we are going through."

Mr Hutchinson said the decision to appoint an interim leadership team through consultancy FE Associates had been made by the governing body of Brooklands alone, without pressure from the LSC.

But Mr Russell made it clear in his letter to the NUS that the LSC had not accepted the former principal's decision to close its campus in Ashford, the site of the former Spelthorne Sixth Form College, and axe A-level provision.

He said: "With reference to your concerns about the changes to the curriculum, the announcements already made by the college about selling a site and closure of specific learning programmes were not agreed by the LSC and will not be binding on the new leadership team and the governing body."

Shane Chowen, vice-president for further education at the NUS, said A- level students welcomed the reprieve, but now all students felt that their courses could be at risk.

"The review is going to take three to four months, and that's a long time for people to be uncertain about their futures. It's a very serious concern," he said.

Ofsted inspectors took the unusual step of heavily criticising the LSC's own performance in their report of the college.

Judging the college to be satisfactory, they said: "It could and should be better."

They said part of the blame fell on the college leadership, which failed to recognise some weaknesses.

But added: "The college has ambitious and very well-founded plans for the future which should enable it to serve its community better. A large building project to further these ambitions has, however, been put in jeopardy by a financial crisis brought about almost entirely by the inept management of others."

They said the college had been "thwarted by grave financial mismanagement beyond the college's own culpability or control. This has precipitated a crisis which threatens the scope of the curriculum".

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