Doubts over Tonbridge colleges as Hadlow Group faces break-up

Doubts over Tonbridge colleges as Hadlow Group faces break-up
HARSH LESSONS: West Kent College was taken over by the Hadlow Group five years ago

THE fate of West Kent and Hadlow agricultural college hangs in the balance as the group that runs them holds talks to hand over control to other educational providers.

Discussions are under way between the Hadlow Group and EKC [East Kent College] about the latter taking over West Kent’s sister college in Ashford.

The group is currently under investigation by the Further Education [FE] Commissioner over allegations of financial irregularities.

The probe was launched in March after the resignation of principal Paul Hannan and his deputy Mark Lumsdon-Taylor. The chair of governors at West Kent, Paul Dubrow, has stood down.

There are also concerns about the state of the group’s budget with interim principal Graham Morley saying: “The colleges were experiencing some financial difficulty for quite some time. The financial issues are quite serious.”

He added: “None are impacting on the students and staff. They are at a strategic level rather than at an operational level.”

But their future may now depend on other ‘interested parties’ who have been ‘invited to develop detailed plans for all or parts of the Hadlow Group sites,’ according to EKC.

The Hadlow Group also announced it was ending its 10-year sponsorship of Tonbridge Angels Football Club.

‘We are working closely with all involved to secure a sustainable future for both colleges’

The company, which employs 1,400 people, has around 10,000 students – including those at Hadlow Rural Community School and Pre-school.

The FE Commissioner has held meetings with the group, the Department for Education and EKC to find ‘a clear resolution to the issues that Hadlow Group has been facing’.

A spokesman said: “Proposals relating to the future of Hadlow College, West Kent College and Ashford College have been invited from a number of interested parties – of which the EKC Group is just one.”

He added: “All proposals will be analysed and considered by the FE Commissioner against a detailed and well-considered assessment plan.

“Both Hadlow College and West Kent and Ashford College are working closely with the FE Commissioner, and all those involved, to secure a sustainable future for both colleges.

“Throughout this whole process, our emphasis has been, and continues to be, the maintaining of a high-quality teaching and learning experience for our students, ensuring they are unaffected by the current issues.”

The FE Commissioner’s investigation follows an inquiry by the Education and Skills Funding Agency [ESFA] into money paid to the group, which the ESFA disputes that it was entitled to.

‘We will do whatever we can to advise and assist, and are pursuing discussions with the new leadership of the group’

The ESFA provides colleges with funding for apprenticeship schemes. Repaying this money could further damage the group’s finances.

The FE Commissioner is expected to make an announcement about the future of the Hadlow Group on June 14.

Meanwhile Kent County Council has confirmed that it is trying to offer assistance. Roger Gough, Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Education, said: “We are, of course, concerned about the situation and are keen to see that students are able to continue their courses.

“We will do whatever we can to advise and assist, and are pursuing discussions with the new leadership of the group.

“Funding for the college is a matter for the FE Commissioner and the Department for Education.”

EKC – who are they?

EKC, which has five campuses across the county, has put forward its proposal for Ashford and Spring Lane in Canterbury, with a view to finalising the takeover in time for the new academic year in September.

The group was formed last year after East Kent Colleges merged with Canterbury, stabilising its finances and impressing Ofsted.

The watchdog gave Canterbury its first ‘good’ rating in 15 years while ‘highlighting the breadth of experience of the senior leadership team’.

East Kent Colleges also took over the Dover and Folkestone from the struggling K College in 2014.

West Kent’s sister college

The Hadlow Group similarly acquired West Kent and Ashford five years ago as K College was broken up with debts of £16million.

It successfully turned the finances around, and then invested £26million in a new teaching block at Ashford, which opened in September 2017.

But the project has been beset by difficulties – notably involving grants from the council based on meeting building targets.

Last month the Department for Education paid BAM Construction £1million after a part of the group was ordered by the High Court to pay outstanding debts to the developers.


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