Just eight months to fix decades of neglect

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
West Herts college runs out of cash next week. Ian Nash talks to Tony Pitcher, the principal hired to deal with the crisis, and (opposite) hears why inspections need urgent reform.

Ten years between visits and nothing had changed. The cold grey-brown atmosphere and decor pervaded the entire Watford campus of West Herts college. The vast and vacuous reception area seemed almost designed to depress, if not intimidate.

When I was last there, big changes were rumoured, plans were said to be afoot for refurbishment. However, nothing had changed. Students sat around with sandwiches on their laps, lacking adequate refectories and locked out of classrooms for security reasons.

In stark contrast, on my arrival, one young student held the door open for me, and the warmth and friendliness at reception was a delight. The people were fine; it was the fabric that was cracking up.

But as a pound;3.5 million deficit looms, 125 people (20 per cent of the staff) face redundancy. The college has submitted a pound;1.5m bid for refurbishment to the Learning and Skills Council, which bailed-out the college by a similar amount last year.

Tony Pitcher, former principal of South East Essex college, has been drafted in to turn things round by December. The expression on his face told me: it is a tall order. "The institute as a whole has failed because it has not managed effective use of resources," he said.

He contrasted West Herts with the splendid buildings of SE Essex, Brighton, Chichester, City amp; Islington and, most ironically, North Herts which, a few miles across the county, created state-of-the-art premises by selling redundant property to Tesco.

The reason for staff cuts now is "there are simply no more cash reserves," he said. Nor are generous pay-outs likely. "We changed the policy on redundancy - which was not subject to a collective agreement - and have a new one appropriate to our circumstances."

A damning Office for Standards in Education report just published - though expected - had fuelled the depression. The previous principal had negotiated his departure with the board at the start of the inspection. Mr Pitcher was there to pick over the pieces by the time the report was published.

In his view, the college suffered from a lack of fundamental reform stemming back to before incorporation in 1993 (legislation that had triggered my first visit).

Looking back over how the college had survived, he was appalled but not surprised. It was, he said, indicative of a small but significant minority of colleges that had failed to modernise.

"West Herts is not the first and it will not be the last.

"To me as an experienced principal, I find it astonishing that the college has been in deficit for so many years. Buildings were sold to maintain cash flow but with no overall improvement in the internal environment."

Coupled with that was a constant failure to look at competition and collaboration beyond the college walls. Hertfordshire local authority has an aggressive 11 to 18 policy (including prestigious grammar schools in Watford), while the highly successful University of Hertfordshire sees its local role as central.

As a result, West Herts has seen a progressive decline in the number of 16 to 19-year-old students and HE has been "a disaster area" where recruitment levels in excess of 1,500 have slumped to 713 in seven years. "This, at a time when all signals have been for expansion, working with partners and progression from FE to HE," he said.

"It is down to management because these pressures have been no secret but they were not addressed by the college." Mr Pitcher was recently very frank with staff over what he believed was at the heart of HE decline. "HE staff have not seen the current 16 to 17-year-olds as a source of students for their market," he said.

"I told them publicly that they were being elitist and that we had to work as a whole college on reforms - putting more emphasis on teachers as core professionals."

To add to the woes, the LSC is investigating what it believes to be "misconceived" franchising of courses for ethnic minority groups with no proper controls.

Mr Pitcher says he must move swiftly on redundancy and reorganisation since the college effectively runs out of cash next week. There were previous proposals but no action. "Staff have been through all the discomfort of reorganisation for two years prior to my arrival without a successful outcome."

With 600 pages of consultation feedback, he knows there is cynicism but reckons he has the support and goodwill for reform. All posts are up for reapplication. He is, where possible, appointing new managers from existing teams.

"We are looking internally first because there are the skilled and competent academic and business support staff we need." But there will be disappointments.

"The place is top-heavy with managers in a very hierarchical corporation."

Even so, the college has to plan for small continued decline to 2006 when there are hopes of an upturn. The crisis leaves West Herts unable to exploit increased local demands for electrical installation and motor vehicle training.

"We do not have the cash to buy extra resources for them," Mr Pitcher said.

"My priority has to be to make sure the college is fit for a new student intake in the next academic year."

"I have seen many bad colleges as a consultant. Sandwell was as bad as West Herts. And always at the centre of it all is that they realise too late the need to reform their internal processes and strategies."

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