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'Times are tough for colleges, but diversification will bring success'

Sam Parrett, principal of Bromley College of Further and Higher Education, writes:

Times are tough in further education. Budgets have been consistently slashed as a result of reduced government funding and many colleges are facing increasing financial difficulty and uncertainty.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was forced to introduce an emergency loan facility at the end of last year for colleges facing severe cash flow problems and this absolutely reflects the financial challenges within the sector.

Yet while many colleges struggle, others are indeed flourishing with excellent Ofsted results and sound financial health.

As the principal of a college that is bucking the trend, I am keen to consider what it is that is helping us to succeed in a tough environment, that can be likened to a ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario. 

Evolution is the impact of educational policies, and Bromley College has evolved and pushed policy boundaries to ensure that we remain relevant and responsive to the communities we serve.

For me, diversification has, and continues to be key; extending and developing a college’s offer to reach the widest possible audience is essential.

In the last five years, Bromley College has undergone a merger (with Orpington College), pioneered London’s first Career College, set up a 14-16 College, gained approval for a University Technical College, spearheaded a multi academy trust and become a technical and vocation hub for our local schools.

This is a lot to take on, particularly so against the backdrop of reduced funding and increased competition. However, we spend little time brooding over what we can’t do. Instead of growing despondent at opportunities that are no longer available to us, we have established a culture and a climate in which we explore what is possible.

Vision is key, as is having an appetite for innovation and development. New opportunities must be explored and strategically planned for.  Ultimately we must consider whether a new initiative will help us to deliver on our core objective – educating and training our students – which crucially, is something we have never diverted from.

As with all businesses, there are times when risks must be taken and I have had to trust my instinct and judgement on such occasions.

For example in 2012 we were approached by the DfE to become an academy sponsor for failing schools in Bromley. I recognised immediately that this opportunity would help us to improve the life chances of children before they arrived at our college. This was clearly a strategic fit with our objectives.

Combined with our outstanding Nido Volans Centre (supporting 16-25 year olds who have learning and behavioural difficulties) this innovative strategy fully complemented our role as an ambassador and pathfinder for the new legislation.

We therefore established the Bromley Educational Trust and this was undoubtedly a risk worth taking. Our reputation and community impact has risen steadily and we are now taking on a further special school into our Trust. As a SEN and behaviour hub, we are working with young people across seven local authorities, providing all-through education and support for young people with a range of special needs.

Relationships with the local authority, local schools and funding bodies are key. Our thriving college is truly community-based and recognised as a leading provider of high quality vocational in the area.

Another project that didn’t come without risk is our Hospitality, Food and Enterprise Career College. It is with great excitement that today we will be officially opening a student-led restaurant, BR6, which is the centrepiece of our Career College and will provide our 14-19 year old students with hands on experience in the industry. BR6 is also part of an extensive regeneration programme in Orpington town centre.

This major project is ongoing, with building work on phase two planned for later this year – which will include a pop-up shop, delicatessen, retail units and a bistro. This work is supported by top industry professionals, the London Borough of Bromley and the London Local Enterprise Partnership.

We believe our college is a special place, delivering a public service in a business-like way. I firmly believe that other colleges, who have attempted similar diversification but have not achieved the same success have lacked the cohesive strategic approach, the wholesale engagement of internal and external stakeholders and indeed the passion and resilience that is so vital in such a tough climate.

It’s all very well blaming funding cuts for lack of success, but there really is so much more to it, which in my view colleges need to recognise.

I am proud of what we are achieving. Our evolution has been possible as a result of embracing policy law and changes and investing in educational activities that we have been able to weave back into our DNA. I am confident that we will continue to maintain our strategic and reputational position, whilst serving the community in a way only a FE college can.

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