Back in 1987, Ros Morpeth was asked by an academic journal to predict the future for distance learning. As the newly appointed chief executive of the National Extension College (NEC), the pioneering organisation that was created as a pilot for the Open University, Morpeth might have been expected to display a deep insight into where the sector was heading. As it turned out, her vision could not have been more wrong.
"I remember writing that the NEC only exists because what schools offer is patchy," she recalls. "They don't suit everybody; a lot of people fall through the cracks. But as school education was improving at the time, I wrote, `There soon won't be a need for an organisation like NEC, and we can retire gracefully.' "
Sadly, Morpeth's optimistic vision of an educational utopia has failed to come to fruition. Today, the NEC has 5,500 students from across the country on its books, similar in scale to a small further education college. The breadth of its learners is remarkable. Prodigious 12-year-olds are preparing to take their GCSEs early; prisoners are studying law from their cells in a bid to turn their lives around; the NEC's oldest learner, 94-year-old Edward, is on course to pass an IGCSE in foundation maths.
But the organisation, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, came perilously close to going out of existence altogether. After 26 years of working for the NEC, including 16 at the helm, Morpeth retired in 2003, leaving the college in rude financial health, boasting a turnover of almost pound;6 million, a staff of 70 and a three-acre site in central Cambridge.
Little could she have imagined that eight years later, she would have to return to haul the NEC back from the brink of oblivion. The problems emerged when the college was bought by the Learning and Skills Network (LSN) charity in 2010. It promised to invest and double student numbers, but the expansion never happened. Nor did the investment.
As LSN's financial problems deepened during 2011, the NEC was asset-stripped. Three weeks after the college's site was sold to its neighbour - the University of Cambridge's Homerton College - for pound;6 million, LSN was placed into administration. Unless a saviour came forward, the NEC was faced with the very real prospect of going out of business in a matter of days, leaving its 7,000 learners in the lurch.
"It is a shocking scandal," Morpeth told TES at the time. Eventually, after countless phone calls attempting to raise the finances required to save the NEC, she hit upon a plan. With backing from adult learning charity Niace, Morpeth used the Open School Trust to bring the NEC out of administration. Like the NEC, the trust was a charity founded by Michael Young, the former Labour politician, social reformer and father of free school pioneer Toby Young. But the trust had lain dormant for eight years until it was revived by Morpeth that December as a vehicle for reclaiming ownership of the college.
However, this "Christmas miracle" was just the start of the hard work. The NEC's bank accounts were frozen for two months. It had to shed 10 of its 26 employees; those who remained had no idea whether it could stay afloat.
But Morpeth knew she had to try. "I just couldn't walk away," she says. "I tell you, the first six months [after coming back], I've never been so tired in my entire life. I used to go home and just fall asleep on the sofa.
"The staff were absolutely devastated and demoralised. They'd been left in limbo, really. It's an incredible tribute to them that they kept the show on the road. What we didn't know was whether the NEC's reputation had been so badly damaged that no one would want to know."
Rebirth of a brand
The first job for the remaining NEC staff was to ensure that the students already on its books were able to complete their qualifications. Thanks to the commitment of the NEC's beleaguered tutors, who soldiered on despite having no idea whether they would ever receive another pay cheque, all of them did.
"They'd just decided that they couldn't let those students down," Morpeth explains. "There was tremendous goodwill."
Remarkably, for the past two years the college has generated enough income to break even. Today, it offers more than 80 courses. These include GCSEs, IGCSEs and A-levels, as well as vocational qualifications and recreational courses. Its learners have extremely varied backgrounds, from soldiers serving in Afghanistan and students retaking exams to home-schooled children and those with medical conditions so serious that they cannot attend college.
The NEC has also teamed up with the Prisoners' Education Trust to offer a range of courses to people serving sentences. Perhaps surprisingly, they often turn out to be some of the college's most diligent students. "Some of them work so hard the tutors can hardly keep up," Morpeth says.
Course materials for NEC students are sent out by post and email, and each learner is assigned a tutor who acts as the first point of contact, setting homework, answering questions and giving feedback. The NEC works with approximately 80 tutors around the country and communication generally takes place by email. This is often supplemented with other materials, such as videos from the Khan Academy or podcasts on iTunes.
And this flexibility is at the heart of the NEC's ongoing popularity, Morpeth believes. "We have elderly learners in care homes who want to keep their brains active. We've had parents studying GCSEs alongside their kids so they can actually help them. People are becoming more informed about how they can study in different ways."
At long last, the college is receiving the recognition it deserves. In February, Morpeth was named leader of the year at the TES FE Awards. As one of the judges put it: "There are lots of outstanding leaders, but only one miracle worker."
And Morpeth strongly believes that the need for the NEC has never been greater. "Now we have state schools, academies, free schools and university technical colleges," she says, "the provision at secondary and FE level has become even more fragmented and even more patchy, and there are even more people falling through the cracks.
"If you sat in and listened to some of the phone calls we get, almost always the first thing people say is `I missed out at school'. That's still happening."