Opinion: Easton and Otley College and an opportunity that was missed
PUBLISHED: 18:44 07 June 2019
Where do you go if you are starting out in life and want to become a top farmer or an agricultural pioneer?
Harper Adams (Shropshire) maybe? Or possibly Cirencester (Gloucestershire), or Reading (Berkshire)? There's a long list of possibilities, but two counties which definitely won't figure on your list are Suffolk and Norfolk.
Yet ask anyone outside of these two counties what they associate most with either of them, and almost certainly farming will be at or near the top of the list.
MORE - Easton and Otley to be carved up after damning Ofsted inspections
There is good reason for this: this region has been a mecca for some of the UK's most ambitious and energetic farmers for a century or more. Scots headed here in their droves in the first part of the last century to forge new lives and new farming enterprises. Some of the world's top plant scientists reside here at centres such as John Innes and the Sainsbury Laboratory. It's fertile ground for some of the most forward-thinking agricultural techniques - and it grows a lot of food, stocking the nation's larders with much of its vegetables, cereals, pork and poultry.
Counties' failed potential
In terms of agricultural education, though, the counties have fallen well short of their potential.
But up until now they have had a dedicated further education (FE) provider: Easton and Otley College was formed to equip the counties' would-be farmers, and those who live and work in their largely rural economies, with a practical, hands-on educational base. As it's FE, it isn't the type of college that those outside of the counties will flock to, but it will help those starting out in the industry to get off the ground.
Nine years ago, post-Credit Crunch, the UK government embarked on an austerity programme like no other. Education wasn't exempt - but some parts were more exposed than others. School age education was subject to a lot of politicians' promises about preserving budgets. Universities and higher education (HE) institutions insulated themselves by negotiating relatively generous £9k a year tuition fees - a maximum promptly adopted as a sector norm. But further education - where the working classes learn their trade - was considered fair game, and - arguably - shouldered an unfair share of the cuts burden.
Merger of Easton and Otley
In 2012, in a bid to shield themselves from the threat of then-chancellor George Osborne's pruning shears, Norfolk and Suffolk's land-based FE colleges - Easton and Otley - did the sensible thing and merged, with the blessing and encouragement of government officials. Mergers mean that in theory, institutions can make savings by substantially cutting 'back office' and management functions by sharing them across sites.
Having taken this precautionary action, Easton and Otley might have been justified in believing itself to be safe, but those who work in FE will tell you they exist in a hostile environment, and weaknesses will be exploited.
All seemed to be going well under the new regime until July 2017, when, seemingly out of the blue, Ofsted inspectors paid a visit and didn't like what they saw, rating the college 'inadequate'. Easton and Otley took decisive action: a new chair of governors was appointed, and the principal quit his post. New chair Mark Pendlington, an industry heavyweight, set about transforming the college's structures, appointing a new board and recruiting a new principal, Jane Townsend. Together, they embarked on a programme of radical reform, but one of their first - and most painful - tasks was to get the budget under control. It meant deep cuts, and shedding a sizeable chunk of the college's staff - 80 full-time equivalent posts.
Then - horror of horrors - just a few months into their transformation programme, in October 2018, Ofsted paid another surprise visit.
Ofsteds and their damaging effects
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I could go on (and on) about how fair Ofsteds really are. They are a conceit dreamt up by politicians to satisfy voters that they are driving up standards and giving them value for money. In reality, they provide a snapshot of what an institution - stressed out by the arrival of the inspection team - looks like over a short, three-day period: this is not a criticism of the inspectors, but of the process. Inspectors report what they see: they don't look at context, and they don't take any real account of where that institution might be in a tough recovery process.
In the case of Easton and Otley, it was the educational equivalent of asking a patient to dance a jig a few hours after major surgery.
College in crisis
Perhaps inevitably, the inspectors still didn't like what they saw. The college got its second thumbs-down, triggering a chain reaction leading to its demise on December 31 this year.
Every aspect of the college was put under the Whitehall microscope, and a process headed up by further education commissioner Richard Atkins. Over the ensuing months, management team members at Easton and Otley were put through the proverbial wringer, hosting more monitoring visits than they had hot teas. When the monitors said 'jump', the college jumped, complying with every piece of advice, always keen to ensure that no one could turn around at the end of the process and say: 'You could have done it better.'
But despite all this, Mr Atkins concluded the college could no longer continue in its present form and must therefore come up with a plan. Effectively this meant 'merger'. The college pulled out all the stops and actively sought potential suitors.
Against all the odds, what it came up with was quite remarkable - four potential bid options, including one from the University of East Anglia (UEA) which had the potential to be a game-changer in terms of the two counties' educational deficit (see above).
Eventually, these were whittled down to two bids. One - a joint bid from generalist FE providers Norwich City and Suffolk New colleges - would involve the break-up of Easton and Otley. The other - the UEA bid - involved a marriage between FE and HE provision, combining the university's stellar academic and research credentials and the college's hands-on farming expertise.
The bidding process
The two bidding parties made their respective presentations to the commissioner and a college stakeholder group formed for that purpose.
The stakeholder group reportedly favoured the UEA bid, but the commissioner said he needed time to consider. He concluded the FE bid was the best option. While the ultimate decision on whether to accept this lay with the college board, strict governance rules gave it little option but to accept the commissioner's recommendation.
So here we are
So we are where we are. On the plus side, the FE colleges which are now poised to take over Easton and Otley have stated their desire to continue and enhance its agricultural provision at the two sites. On the minus side, you might want to consider the sustained and relentless government squeeze on FE budgets.
But in the future, if you're ever wondering why Suffolk and Norfolk lacks high calibre higher education opportunities for would-be farmers, you might want to ponder an opportunity missed.