Having recently retired, and after almost 38 years of association with Hadlow College, I have watched with interest and great sadness the recent developments there. I have felt that, due to my close association with Hadlow, it was most appropriate to hold my council, but now however, further to the article apropos the College in the June edition of South East Farmer, and subsequent numerous questions from farming acquaintances, I feel the time has now arisen to express an opinion.

There are and always will be those, even within the farming community, who will readily criticise and judge, often with the confidence of ignorance, sometimes malice; and the recent financial difficulties at Hadlow have attracted a lot of criticism. It has often been unfounded and generally ill-informed.

Criticism of management and governance may be justified, but, with investigations ongoing, we do not yet have all of the facts and so judgment at this stage is not advised. Unfortunately some have grasped this as an opportunity to have a wider pop at colleges, with some criticism addressed to staff and students, and this is certainly, in the vast majority of cases, simply not warranted. One of the most frequent comments I have heard is that students are not as well trained or knowledgeable as they were, for example: “…not like they used to be when I was a student,” is a common refrain and absolutely correct. But times change and the education system has altered quite radically (and not generally for the best) since many of the critics where in college; not through any fault of the college changes have occurred. They have been driven by dramatic, frequent and sometimes contradictory changes in government policy.

Much of the criticism harks back to a time when students entered College only after a year of pre-college experience, embarked on a three year Diploma course, which included a middle year in industry. It is a no brainer that these were always going to be better qualified and experienced than current students.

Changes in the age at which learners are able to leave full time education and training (now 18) and the fact that beyond 18 there are funding issues (i.e. fees) for both Further and Higher Education, has resulted in students coming into college straight from school at 16, completing a two year Diploma course with relatively short periods of industrial experience and then entering the world of work. It’s like comparing chalk and cheese, woefully, it is unequivocally “not like it used to be” and this is one circle that, I suspect, will never be closed.

The majority of (experienced) college lecturing staff struggle with this situation just as much as the industry does and are constantly frustrated by the impact that regulations and resource limitations have on the content and quality of the courses that they are able to deliver. Most are doing a damn good job within the constraints imposed on them.

Since incorporation in 1993, when colleges were removed from local authority control, education ceased to be regarded as an investment in the nation’s future. Colleges have effectively become businesses, driven, particularly in recent years, by government-determined and externally imposed targets. “Bums on seats,” retention rates, achievement etc. have become god, spawning vast quantities of data, often with little regard to how meaningful it is, simply because it is having the “correct” figures that generates income.

Further education has been grossly underfunded for years, as a result colleges have been compelled to seek other income streams to enhance, or simply to maintain, the quality of student provision, consequentially many Colleges have strayed into unfamiliar territory in pursuit of much needed funding, some a little too far, Hadlow College is certainly not alone, but sadly has been the first to slip into Educational Administration. Without any shadow of doubt, there are others perilously close to the brink, who are now wondering who will be the next to fall, some not so far away. I am not judging, justifying or apologising for mistakes that may have been made, simply being realistic. The current enquiry into Hadlow’s activities will determine whether or not there is fault.

There does seem to be an assumption that Educational Administration is the same as a company going bankrupt and ceasing to trade, but this is simply not the case, as far as staff and learners at Hadlow are concerned it is business as usual and will continue to be so, the college is still recruiting for 2019/2020 and Hadlow will continue to offer good quality education and training delivered through the same range of course provision. The only possible difference is that there is a slender chance that this might be imparted under a different name. I hope not, Hadlow College has a long history a strong heritage and an excellent reputation, which should not be discarded as a result of current events.

Most importantly, now is the time that Hadlow College needs the support of the farming sector within the county. Kent is still very much a rural county and agriculture is a significant and valuable contributor to the county’s economy. With an aging farming population the agricultural sector desperately needs good quality and well-trained young entrants to take up the reins and lead the way forward into a new and successful era for agriculture. There are other colleges (currently) able to offer agricultural courses in the South East, but many of those potential entrants to the sector are, at 16 not ready to take up a residential place at a college out of county, travelling on a daily basis would, at best, be difficult and for some impossible, quite apart from the fact that no doubt a significant number could simply not afford a residential course; we need sound agricultural provision within Kent accessible to all. The provision of quality education and training within Kent is essential in order to facilitate the progress of those much-needed young entrants into one of the county’s most valuable sectors.

I know that there are commercial companies keen to support agricultural provision at Hadlow and eager to commit to the future of the college. That engagement will however depend very much on being able to build relationships based upon trust and transparency; something that has sadly been eroded (maybe a bit of an understatement, shattered may be more appropriate).As a consequence of significant shortcomings in both management and governance at Hadlow, the farming sector feels let down and disappointed, something that I know is and has been for some time, been felt just as keenly, by staff at the college. The process of beginning to determine a meaningful resolution to this sad situation is underway, but real progress will depend very much on the meaningful support of the farming community. Commercial organisations are looking for appropriate signals, not from the college alone; they also need to see the same positive signals from the farm sector. Then, and only then, can Hadlow truly move forward in partnership with commercial organisations, the farming sector and most importantly future students to re-establish the college’s position as a provider of excellent agricultural education and training for the county and wider region.

But what about the sheep? Sheep trade continues to be OK, not terribly exciting, but it could be worse, interestingly there is still a trickle of hoggets coming forward, I suspect a number of ewe tegs, as producers cash in now, which could help bolster ewe trade in the autumn. Some good quality hoggets have in fact been making more per kg than some new season lambs, and is an indication of the current level of demand (or should that be supply). I am still convinced that as an industry we are missing a trick in not marketing our output as lambs, hoggets and mutton, three excellent but distinctive products, we have “Mutton Revival,” how about “Hogget Revival”? We have at last had a decent drop of rain over the past week or so, which should perk up much needed grass growth quite significantly, although as predicted the moisture stress has triggered flowering in some grasses now that they have access to a bit of moisture, time to get busy with the topper to maintain grass growth into the summer.

On a personal note, after 9 or 10 years of standing outside the ring at the South of England Show, watching students show my sheep (on loan and generally well shown) under the Hadlow College banner, it has been nice to show under my own flag once again, made even more enjoyable by having the Lleyn breed champion, with a lovely, home bred senior ram.