For an FE institution with an outstanding reputation in the sector, Newcastle College has a worrying knack of falling out with its neighbours. While its expansionist tendencies have helped its parent organisation, Newcastle College Group (NCG), to become one of the biggest players in FE, they have not endeared the organisation to those who stand in its path.
Since the college announced plans to cut a tenth of its workforce last year, little love has been lost between it and the University and College Union. General secretary Sally Hunt claimed that NCG "has gained an unfortunate reputation for treating both those who work for it and the communities it serves with contempt".
This ill feeling worsened following the acrimonious collapse of its merger with neighbouring Northumberland College, which insisted that NCG's behaviour was having a "negative impact" on its reputation.
It has now emerged that NCG is moving into the pre-16 sector. An NCG- backed university technical college (UTC) is due to open in September, and it has submitted an application to the Department for Education to open a free school in the city.
While the former enjoyed a largely warm reaction, the latter is ruffling the feathers of the educational establishment in the North East, especially since the free school is to be located next to the pound;40 million Excelsior Academy, a recently opened sponsored academy.
"That cannot be a sensible or efficient use of public money," Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes told TES. Mr Forbes was quoted in the publicity material for the college's UTC, but has now withdrawn his support. "This whole episode leaves a bitter taste, which will be difficult to overcome," he said. Council chief executive Barry Rowland has quit NCG's board in protest.
Introducing a new competitor into a marketplace full of established schools is one thing, but an NCG leaflet for the planned free school that reportedly said children were being "failed by their local schools" is quite another. And this could well be the first of many schools: NCG has unveiled plans for a chain of "enterprise schools" designed to create the "entrepreneurs, managers and business people of the future".
Lynne Ackland, head of Newcastle secondary Heaton Manor, has expressed concerns about the planned free school. "This is an area where there are surplus places," she said. "They could have developed a partnership with the schools, but they are just riding roughshod over us. Our schools are not failing: 76 per cent are good or outstanding. We are improving. If NCG were interested in Newcastle, they would want to work in partnership, rather than in competition. How are Newcastle College suddenly experts in 11-16 education?"
Newcastle North MP and shadow education minister Catherine McKinnell has also waded in, warning that NCG could "destabilise" Newcastle City Council's work to drive up standards. But Newcastle's Conservative MEP Martin Callanan has given the scheme his support.
"The college is well-known for empire-building - it's very powerful in the region," said Dr Bernard Trafford, head of Newcastle's independent Royal Grammar School. "It's quite strange that the council is so at odds with the biggest FE college in the city. I suppose that's what the government wants: to see providers rattling cages. In the area, there are a lot of schools with a long way to go, in pockets of deprivation, not easy settings."
NCG was quick to defend its free-school plans. "The free school is planned to open in phases, and so will not bring a huge influx of new capacity to the city overnight," a spokeswoman said. "Rather, it will present an alternative choice for parents, which will grow in line with demand from parents and children . The school will be academically non-selective. It will categorically not `cream off' talent."
According to Newcastle College Group: "Enterprise schools are a new type of school that fosters initiative, creativity and problem solving, as well as solid academic results. Every student will have the opportunity to participate in, and ultimately run, a real working business as part of the curriculum offer. The school will also invest heavily in personal development and communications skills and will run an extended school day from 8am to 4.30pm."