Leading long-distance learning provider is saved by a 'miracle'

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
The National Extension College is rescued from financial ruin

In a move hailed as a "Christmas miracle", the beleaguered National Extension College (NEC), the pioneering distance-learning institution that paved the way for the Open University, has been saved from extinction.

It has been a traumatic few weeks for staff at the NEC's Cambridge headquarters, not to mention the 15,000 learners the college has on its books. In October, the Learning and Skills Network (LSN), which took over the NEC last year, announced it had sold off the college's home (pictured) for #163;6 million. Three weeks later, the charity went into administration.

With the NEC's 26 employees facing an uncertain festive season, it appeared unlikely that the college would be saved. But thanks to the ingenuity of former NEC executive director Ros Morpeth, a new owner has been found. And the solution was closer to home than anyone could have expected.

The college has now been taken over by the Open School Trust (OST). Like the NEC, the charity was founded by the late Michael Young - the former Labour politician, social reformer and father of free-school pioneer Toby Young - to support children who did not have access to mainstream education.

However, in 2003 the scenario was very different. Back then, the NEC was approached by the trustees of the OST. "They had run out of steam," Dr Morpeth said. "They came to the NEC and said that they wanted to retire. They asked if we would take the charity over." The college duly obliged and the OST has been lying dormant ever since.

But with the previous NEC charity having being dissolved as a result of the LSN takeover last year, Dr Morpeth and her former NEC colleagues Tony Dodds and Greville Rumble needed a new vehicle that they could use to reclaim ownership of the NEC. They soon realised that the OST could offer the answer to their prayers; last week, after eight years, the charity came back to life.

"We're delighted that Dr Ros Morpeth has been successful in recovering the legacy of one of Lord Young's inventions by using another - the Open School Trust - and we wish them every success in re-establishing NEC as an independent charity," said David Hughes, chief executive of adult learning body Niace.

"This is great news ... There were lots and lots of learners in danger of losing out. We think the NEC is a going concern and we think it can be more successful."

Two former Niace executives, Sheila Carlton and Peter Lavender, are to join the OST board and Dr Morpeth said the support offered by the body has been invaluable. "They made all the difference. David Hughes was wonderful. He grasped the situation and said, 'We will be your partner'."

The bid was also supported by the Open University and the Young Foundation.

The move was welcomed by Ian Oakley-Smith, joint administrator and director at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "We are pleased that a charity with such great lineage has gone to a buyer who both understands its ethos and is able to secure its long-term future," he said.

And for Dr Morpeth, this represents an emotional return to the NEC. She joined in 1976 and was appointed executive director in 1987.

"In 2003 I retired thinking I had left the NEC in a wonderful place. It owned its home, it had no mortgage outstanding, it had 70 staff and a turnover of #163;6 million," she said. Sadly, things rapidly went downhill.

Even after her retirement, Dr Morpeth retained her interest in the NEC, leading a campaign against the LSN takeover in 2010. "We predicted what would happen, but not that it would happen as quickly as it did," she told TES.

But, even after the events of recent months, Dr Morpeth is confident that the NEC can thrive once more. "We have an amazing group of people who are willing to help us and offer their support. We have made a big commitment to take the NEC out of administration," she said.

The only mishap so far has been that PricewaterhouseCoopers erroneously announced last week that all 26 employees would be able to keep their jobs.

"Unfortunately, that's not the case. It's going to have to be a smaller and more streamlined company," said Dr Morpeth, who was this week appointed the college's interim chief executive. But, given the drama behind the scenes at the NEC in recent weeks, the fact that there is still a company at all is little short of miraculous.

GOING THE DISTANCE

1963 - The year the NEC was founded

15,000 - The number of learners it has on its books each year

8 - The number of years the Open School Trust has been dormant.

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