New principal reveals dire straits of Northumberland College before merger

Northumberland College would have been insolvent and unable to pay staff wages if its merger hadn’t gone ahead, its new principal has revealed.

Friday, 10th January 2020, 1:33 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 6:46 pm
Nigel Harrett, principal of Northumberland College.

Northumberland College would have been insolvent and unable to pay staff wages if its merger hadn’t gone ahead, its new principal has revealed.

Nigel Harrett, who took over the helm last March just after the college merged with its counterpart in Sunderland, provided an update to Northumberland County Council’s family and children’s services committee on Thursday.

Setting out the challenges the college was and, in many cases, still is facing, he highlighted financial vulnerability, a historic lack of investment in estates, the curriculum offer, the quality of the education and the college’s reputation and partnerships.

“Had we not merged, Northumberland College would have needed to go down the insolvency route because we would not have been able to pay staff wages in March last year,” he said.

On being rated as requires improvement by Ofsted, he added: “In some respects, that was quite generous.

“There are a significant number of challenges, but we do have plans in place to overcome and improve that situation.”

Mr Harrett explained that the transformation programme so far has included investment in the facilities at the Ashington and Kirkley Hall campuses, curriculum improvements, better safeguarding and support for students, but also job losses in a bid to keep the wage bill under control.

“I know that’s a concern, but in terms of managing the college, I needed to bring the costs in line with the income,” he said.

Moving forward, there will be efforts to engage better with schools, partners such as the county council and employers in industry and business, he continued, as well as ongoing work on the curriculum and standards, the finances and creating a student first ethos.

He concluded that the overall vision is ‘outstanding quality, outstanding curriculum’, adding: “There’s still a way to go, but I think we are making huge strides.”

Coun Gordon Stewart said: “I am a glass-half-full person, but I have been rocked back today. How do we prevent it happening again?”

Mr Harrett told him that there was a whole new governance structure in place, including new governors for Northumberland College itself who had undergone extensive training and been selected to ensure there was the right skill mix.

He added that the new governing body provided a ‘significant amount of oversight and challenge and scrutiny’.

In response to a question from teaching union representative John Sanderson on why some schools didn’t want to engage with the college, Mr Harrett admitted that reputational issues were probably playing a part.

“It will be three to five years before we are where we want to be in terms of an outstanding college,” he said.

Cath McEvoy-Carr, the council’s executive director of children’s and adult services, added: “As our confidence grows, it’s our responsibility to sell the wares of what is the only college in the county.”