Seeking college status for a `confident' future

23rd May 2014 at 01:00
First provider to be incorporated for 20 years cites financial security

The first new further education college to be created in two decades is pursuing incorporation in a bid to achieve greater financial security, its leader has revealed.

Prospects Learning Foundation is expected to formally become the first new college since incorporation in 1993 ushered in independence from local authorities. Chief executive Neil Bates told TES that the different funding rules for colleges would allow Prospects to "confidently" plan for the future and reduce the amount of subcontracted funding taken by its partners.

The Essex-based training charity, which already markets itself as a college, will officially become the Prospects College of Advanced Technology in September. Mr Bates said it was at the "vanguard" of a new breed of specialist technical colleges, which will also include a "nuclear college" to train people to build and decommission reactors and an institution to provide engineers for the controversial HS2 high-speed rail project.

Last month, business secretary Vince Cable outlined his vision for a "new generation of national colleges: specialised institutions acting as national centres of expertise".

Mr Bates insisted that Prospects, founded as a group training association in 1969, would use its new status to expand existing provision in Essex, in sectors such as engineering, plumbing and carpentry. It has around 1,200 students on its books, including 750 apprentices, but plans to expand to 2,500-3,000 learners. Mr Bates said that the Prospects model was "scalable" and could eventually be replicated elsewhere.

But the provider had some initial reservations about becoming a college, Mr Bates admitted. "We've not got some sort of inferiority complex [towards colleges]," he said.

"We had a call from [the government] asking would we like to become an FE college," he added. "My immediate reaction was if that means we become a general FE college, I'm not interested. But if we're looking at a new model of FE and being a specialist FE college, that would be of interest."

There were also practical reasons for the change. Prospects' Education Funding Agency contracts for 16-19 provision are channelled through established FE colleges. "They inevitably take a management administration fee before subcontracting to us," Mr Bates explained. "We want to be funded directly - we want 100 per cent of our funding to support provision."

College status also offers more financial protection, he believes. "We're in a very much more commercial position than that faced by FE colleges," he said. "With that sort of approach to funding, it's difficult for any organisation like ours to confidently and securely invest for the future."

But despite the benefits of incorporation, Mr Bates does not expect many other providers to follow suit. "They might feel uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny and accountability that comes with being a publicly funded FE college. Commercial providers would need to think about it very carefully," he said.

Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Training Providers, called for colleges and independent providers to be treated equally under a "more transparent, open process".

"There are three major differences between how colleges and training providers are treated: access to capital funding.the different way contracts are managed and the way poor performance is managed," he said. "Colleges are given a full year to manage their budgets; independent organisations are reviewed on a quarterly basis to check they are hitting their targets."

But Prospects' move towards incorporation was welcomed by Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges. "The decision by an independent training provider with a strong track record to incorporate as a college is a vote of confidence in the college corporation model, which we welcome," he said. "College status comes with legal responsibilities and duties, and funding policies these days make fewer distinctions between different types of providers.

"Creating new colleges by conversion may be a better option than creating new organisations from nothing. The third option is to invest in existing good colleges and building their capacity."

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