Hadlow College college has had to deal with a string of resignations and a slide into financial chaos after the Further Education Commissioner (FEC) and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) launched an investigation into the financial management of the Hadlow Group.

In the latest blow to the once-proud agricultural college’s autonomy, the Secretary of State for Education’s court petition to allow it to be placed into educational administration was agreed on Wednesday (22 May).

Meanwhile a recruitment specialist dealing with the agricultural and horticultural sectors has said that the uncertainty around the college’s future is causing real problems for farmers and others looking to take on skilled staff.

“The industry was already struggling to find suitably qualified agricultural and horticultural workers, from tractor drivers to sprayers and agronomists, and anything that has the potential to further limit the supply is likely to hit the sector hard,” she said.

The recruiter, who asked not to be named, added: “There are only so many farmers’ sons. The rest of the industry relies on colleges such as Hadlow turning out well-qualified young people, and all the while there is a question mark over its future, the situation will only get worse.

“Bringing in people from abroad is not the answer, as they are used to different soils, different crops and different ways of doing things – and with Brexit on the horizon it may not even be possible. This is a time when we need to be stepping up training locally, not making things even more difficult.”

Hadlow College has stressed that the administration process is designed “to safeguard the College’s provision, with current courses, applications and enrolments continuing as normal” and has stressed that there are “no changes envisaged to staffing as a result of the process”.

But interim principal Graham Morley admitted: “The most likely outcomes of the process are that the College will either continue in a similar structure under new governance or will merge with other colleges.” A spokesman for the college, which has long led the way in land-based courses, said he could not comment on which colleges might be potential partners.

The group-wide crisis was sparked by the suspensions of principal Paul Hannan and deputy principal Mark Lumsdon-Taylor following the intervention of the FEC and the ESFA and the ongoing investigations into what have been described as “accounting irregularities”.

Lumsdon-Taylor, whose resignation had been announced in January and came into effect on 1 March, after the suspensions came into effect, has remained tight-lipped since the crisis began but is due to speak on “then… now… and the future” at a press conference in June.

Amid suggestions that the ESFA is looking to reclaim “significant sums” of money, it has also been confirmed that one of the Hadlow Group’s flagship projects, Betteshanger Park, is up for sale, halting progress on the £9.5m Kent Mining Museum said to be 85% completed.

With fund-raisers unhappy about the impact on the scheme so close to opening, it is clear that selling the Betteshanger site would ease the pressure on finances and perhaps protect the college at Hadlow from potentially damaging cost-cutting measures.

Meanwhile a spokesman for the group confirmed that key funders and community partners “remain committed to the delivery of the project”, adding: “Hadlow College is currently in discussion with a range of potentially interested parties to secure a sustainable future for the site. The intention is to find a new owner by the end of July 2019”.
The spokesman reiterated previous reassurances that courses at Hadlow College, which has been told to improve its “inadequate financial health”, would not be affected and that the 300 acres of land the group owns were not in the firing line.

Students currently make good use of land surrounding Hadlow College for the practical element of land-based courses that are vital to the future of farming across the South East.

Asked if selling off land to meet what the college itself has referred to as “immediate financial challenges” could be ruled out, the spokesman stressed that the education administration process was specifically designed to protect current and future courses. Since the estate was needed to run the courses, it was an “essential” asset and not under threat, he said.

The spokesman said the challenges were “at a strategic rather than operational level” and went on: “Students will be unaffected by the Education Administration process, but it is designed to help the college achieve financial sustainability.” He could not confirm the level of debt facing the college.

A statement from the college after the administration petition was announced said: “The primary focus of the education administrators will be to provide an outcome with minimum, if any, disruption to the studies of the existing students.”

With the FEC’s report into the Group, which also runs West Kent and Ashford College, published on Thursday (23 May) as South East Farmer went to press, more detail on the college’s future will undoubtedly be revealed over the next few weeks.

An early response to the FEC’s investigation was Graham Morley’s decision to appoint two new chairs of governors and set up new governing bodies for Hadlow College and West Kent and Ashford College, with the two now operating independently, unlike before.

A spokesperson for Lumsdon-Taylor, who once boasted: “I do things differently”, was not prepared to comment on the current problems at Hadlow College when contacted by South East Farmer.