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Overwhelming support for college merger proposal

Easton and Otley College has revealed the positive and supportive outcome of a consultation into its proposed merger with City College Norwich and Suffolk New College.

The three institutions have been in talks to work together, following a review led by Further Education Commissioner Richard Atkins. If accepted, the proposal would lead to a completed merger by 1st January 2020.

Launched on 30th August, the consultation phase ran until 1st October and allowed students, parents, staff, local employers, MPs and the wider community to contribute their thoughts on the suggested plan.

A total of 110 people provided formal responses, via online submission, while some 66  attended discussion events hosted by Mark Pendlington, Chair of the Easton and Otley College Corporation.

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The events, staged at venues both in Norfolk and Suffolk, also saw the principals of the three colleges in attendance, the chairs of Suffolk New College and City College Norwich, and governors from all three colleges.

Summary findings from the responses reveal that some 75% are in favour of the proposal and that parents and staff concur that the merger will allow for expansion of courses, enhancement of land-based learning for the region, and the proactive use of excellent existing facilities on the current campuses.

A large number of independent businesses, local authority contributors, agricultural membership organisations and established employers in the sector also sought to offer their help and input in delivering the merged approach to education in East Anglia.

Key themes highlighted throughout the formal consultation period were as follows:

Protection of land-based education

Respondents said it would be important to ensure the breadth of educational provision meets fully the current and future needs of regional employers, and that the land-based sector, so central to the success of our region’s economy, should not be ‘diluted’ by this merger with general further education colleges.

The colleges emphasised that there is a clear objective to secure land-based learning for Norfolk and Suffolk and to provide and that academic delivery would be in line with the local industrial strategy and Agri-Food Tech Skills Plan.

Impact on students

Respondents said students should be supported in completing studies, at whatever site, as smoothly as possible.

The colleges echoed that this would indeed be their top priority and that already, students are being fully supported, including with up to date information and advice.

Student choice

Respondents raised an issue over a potential ‘monopoly’ on FE and HE education in Norfolk, particularly referencing City College.

It was reiterated that Easton & Otley has a strong reputation for subjects aside from land-based topics, such as sport and leisure, and public service, and that these remain important as options for students.

The colleges stressed there is a clear plan to ensure the curriculum provision leads to more, and not less, student choice.

The merger proposal takes into account the desire to provide a great breadth of curriculum opportunity across all campuses, to see the very highest of teaching standards, and to provide improved options for jobs and careers.

Protection of assets

Respondents said much investment had been made from the land-based sector into the campuses in recent years and that they wanted to ensure the focus and leadership of the current college, in agricultural and farming needs, was not lost. Concern was also expressed about a lack of covenant on the Easton estate, reiterating that while it may not be acceptable to create a ‘binding guarantee’, the merger partners should ensure appropriate security of the land use for the future.

The colleges said that City College Norwich has no plans to create a covenant but is firmly committed to continuing the training and education which Norfolk needs. Suffolk New College has confirmed its land-based provision intention through its business plan.

Impact on staff

Respondents called for sensitivity for staff and full consultation with trade unions.

The colleges confirmed all employers are being extremely careful and sensitive in working closely with the unions and staff on appropriate arrangements for the future.

Agricultural expertise within leadership team and wider staff

Respondents called for visible leadership for agriculture and a ‘farming champion’ to help improve numbers and attainment.

The colleges echoed a commitment to leadership and recognition that staff should be experts in the sector as well as superb teaching professionals.

Links between courses at each campus

Respondents said there must be clear collaboration and connectivity between both sites.

The colleges emphasised that everything possible was being put in place to ensure this is the case.

In particular, there is every intention of continuing to develop excellence in construction and sport with the other campuses, so as to create centres of excellence.

Subject to the completion of financial and legal due diligence, it is intended that the proposed merger will be completed by 1st January 2020.

In the interim period, the colleges and leadership teams will be continuing ongoing consultation with staff and trade unions and will be prioritising a smooth transition to the new arrangements, while delivering high-quality teaching and learning to all students.

The merger process will continue to be overseen by a joint steering group of governors and leaders from all three colleges.

Mark Pendlington, Chair of Easton and Otley College Corporation, said:

“We are so very grateful to all those who took part in the consultation, with every response now helping to shape a secure long-term future for land-based learning in Norfolk and Suffolk.

“Ideas and feedback came thick and fast, leaving no-one in any doubt that innovation and growth in land-based learning is key to employers, communities and to our growing economy.”

He added: “It has been very encouraging and exciting to explore the huge opportunities that now exist as the colleges merge, and expectations are very high for the new structure to deliver for present and future students, as well as for our region.”

Mr Pendlington reiterated that both current College campuses will continue to run with a ‘business as usual’ approach throughout the coming months, while the consultation takes place.

Andrew Barnes, Chair of City College Norwich Corporation said: ““We are extremely encouraged by the responses to the consultation, which have been informed, constructive, and ultimately very positive about the vision our colleges have outlined for the future of land-based skills in Norfolk and Suffolk. 

“Stakeholders clearly articulated that this merger should strengthen Easton and Otley’s distinctive land-based training provision, and build on the college’s considerable experience, expertise and specialist facilities. City College Norwich shares this priority.  

“We are committed to working with the land-based sector, and our university partner, UEA, to develop provision that leads the way in addressing both current and future skills needs in tandem with innovations in agri-tech and wider changes in farming.

“This merger also creates exciting opportunities to combine expertise and resources in other areas of the curriculum, enhancing a wide range of further and higher education learning opportunities.”

Chair of Suffolk New College Corporation, Roger Fern, said: “Many thanks to all those who took part in the consultation. The outcome is a strong endorsement of the plans for each of the colleges involved.

“In Suffolk, senior staff and governors from Suffolk New College have met with groups and individuals in the land-based sector. Without exception, they have encouraged us and have often offered help to achieve our ambition to recreate a centre of educational excellence at Otley. 

“For existing students, we are determined, as are their tutors, that they will achieve the best possible outcomes from their courses. The positive response from staff at Otley is tremendous. The unanimous support from the college’s ‘landlord’, Felix Thornley Cobbold Trust, and the college patron, Lord Iveagh at Elevedon, is very important for both Otley and Suffolk New colleges.

“There are already many strengths at Otley College. We shall build on these. Our three main aims are to provide exceptional learning experiences for all current and future students, to re-develop the provision at Otley and to create a place of destination for visitors.” 

Full details of the findings can be found at www.eocmerger.co.uk.

For more information, or to arrange to talk with one of the principals of the merging colleges on this issue, please email (eocmerger@gmail.com).

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