'A Herculean task': Easton and Otley principal opens up on merger
PUBLISHED: 11:53 12 July 2019 | UPDATED: 13:58 12 July 2019
Despite two challenging years the principal of Easton and Otley College is confident it has a bright future. Bethany Whymark reports on her vision.
The head of a recovering college believes its imminent merger will strengthen the future of both land-based education and industries in East Anglia.
Jane Townsend, principal of Easton and Otley College, said the "Herculean task" of reforming the struggling institution was under way and that its merger with City College Norwich - which will create the largest college in Norfolk with around 10,000 students - would bolster improvements.
The college announced in June that it would be splitting up, seven years after the campuses were first merged. Easton will merge with City College Norwich and Otley with Suffolk New College in Ipswich, with the process on track to be completed by the end of December 2019.
The mergers are expected to cost at least £300,000 - a big expense for a college in Easton and Otley's financial position but necessary to secure its future.
A public consultation is being drafted, which is expected to run from late August to early October.
Ms Townsend said the consultation was "not just a box-ticking exercise".
"All the colleges are interested in seeing that the stakeholders have their say and help to shape the process. For me it is really important that everyone is clear on what the vision is and that they buy into it."
Speaking to this newspaper in June, City College Norwich principal Corrienne Peasgood said the views of farmers and producers would be crucial in shaping Easton's future and that City College was "absolutely totally committed" to continuing and improving the agricultural and land-based courses.
For Ms Townsend, a successful merger would see minimum disruption and increased opportunities for students, sharing of good teaching practises and more progression opportunities for staff.
She added that there are no plans for teaching redundancies at Easton as a result of the merger.
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There is significant need for land-based courses - which make up 56pc of Easton and Otley's curriculum - in East Anglia; the region's agriculture industry is one of the largest in the UK and is continuing to grow through new local projects such as the Food Enterprise Park at Honingham.
Ms Townsend said: "We are losing a lot of production out of the region which means we are losing GVA [gross value added] and we need to claw that back.
"We have so much talent flight from this county. Considering how much research we have on our doorstep and how UEA lead the way with regard to the science of food, we should be seeing a much more collaborative approach to how we can apply all that research to the ground and how farmers can access it."
The merger announcement followed an intervention by the further education commissioner (FEC) at Easton and Otley College after it received its first inadequate Ofsted judgement in May 2017. Despite improvements noted in monitoring visits, a second inspection in October 2018 returned the same judgement.
Jane Townsend said the FEC's decision that City College should be the merger partner had ruffled feathers among some stakeholders, who preferred the bid put forward by the University of East Anglia (UEA).
"Not everyone was unanimous about the decision," she said.
"I have to reassure our learners and prospective learners that they will have a college to study at. We have to ignore the politics and let people know we have a solution."
Ms Townsend said the college was "at the end of a downward spiral of quality and finance" when Ofsted inspectors returned in October 2018, but conceded that staff changes in the summer term 2018 - part of a drive to cut £3m from its staff costs - as well as having a high proportion of new teachers may have contributed to the second inadequate judgement.
"We did it in the summer term so it didn't disrupt students, so we were not in a stable position as a staff body going into that new academic year," she said.
"As well as that we were trying to change the culture of six or seven years in 12 months. It normally takes three to five years to recover a college. It was a Herculean task for us to get things back up."
Intensive teaching support implemented in the past nine months, such as "back to basics" learning projects and advanced coaching, have helped raise the college's proportion of good and outstanding teachers from 4pc to more than 80pc.
The college is hoping to see an improvement in its overall pass rates in this summer's exam results.
Ms Townsend said: "All the decisions we have made have been with the learners in mind. We hope Ofsted will recognise these green shoots."