Commons questions and NUT vote of no confidence - what went wrong at Central Sussex College?

The news Central Sussex College is to close its Haywards Heath and East Grinstead campuses has hit staff and students for six.

Friday, 22nd April 2016, 3:08 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd April 2016, 5:14 pm

College leaders blamed high debts as the main factor behind the decision, which will see the East Grinstead campus close in September and the Haywards Heath campus a year later.

With concerns about the college’s finances having been raised by Sir Nicholas Soames MP in the House of Commons three years ago, those same staff and students could be forgiven for asking why more was not done to prevent this, arguably the worst case scenario, coming to pass.

Central Sussex College has mortgage debts of £25million, 86 per cent of which – or £21.5million – are attached to the Haywards Heath campus.

Central Sussex College at Haywards Heath

Those figures mean the college has to earn £2.1million per year to cover that debt before it can even start to meet its other costs.

If the financial problems were not enough, NUT members at the Haywards Heath campus issued a vote of no confidence in principal Sarah Wright and her team in March over changes to the curriculum.

NUT spokesman Ann Seuret said the vote came after a decision to remove the option for students to take a combination of A-level and BTEC courses – a change the NUT described as “a mistake which could well lead to reduced enrolment of students and put teachers at risk of redundancy”.

A letter signed by Ms Wright was sent on March 18 and said she “did not recognise” the motion of no confidence as the curriculum was “a matter for the management of the college”.

Central Sussex College principal and CEO Sarah Wright - picture courtesy of Central Sussex College

When asked about the vote, she added: “The management of the college are not obliged to recognise a ‘motion of no confidence’ in this case as the vote involved a small number of staff, less than 10, and was not in connection with terms of employment or working conditions.

“The vote was in relation to curriculum offer which is a college management matter.”

Since last week’s announcement, a seemingly endless round of ‘the blame game’ has had social media buzzing, with everyone from management past and present to the government itself being accused of being responsible for the closures.

While “appalled” by the decision to shut the campuses, Sir Nicholas threw his full support behind Ms Wright.

Central Sussex College at Haywards Heath

He said: “I have admired very much the work done by Sarah Wright, the principal, and her colleagues, who have clearly done all they could to keep the college on an even keel, but it is clear that the massive debts that she inherited at the Haywards Heath campus are completely unsustainable.”

He was quick to stamp on any suggestion the blame lay within the Westminster halls of power.

He said: “This is not government cuts. This is the result of being unable to manage a £25million mortgage.”

Sir Nicholas wrote to Nicky Morgan MP, the secretary of state for education, last week, asking her to examine what had happened and to see whether or not the government could assist.

Central Sussex College principal and CEO Sarah Wright - picture courtesy of Central Sussex College

His appeal followed two previous occasions when he raised the issue of Central Sussex College’s finances.

In 2013, he put questions to Matthew Hancock MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state for skills and later minister of state for skills and enterprise.

Sir Nicholas said: “Please note that the minister ordered a review to identify and resolve ‘the reasons for the poor financial situation which included; poor budget setting, inaccurate financial reporting, weak operation of some key financial controls, poor management of the cost base of the college, shortfalls in income generation, poor leadership and weak governance’.”

The college is in discussion with the Department for Education and West Sussex County Council about the potential use of the Haywards Heath site as an academy for both primary and secondary aged children.

While such a change would see the building – which underwent a £30million rebuild between 2011 and 2013 – kept for educational use, Ms Wright said the college would not be involved in the running of the school.

She added: “The negotiations regarding the sale of the Haywards Heath campus are at an early stage. The college will be seeking to pay off as much of the mortgage debt as possible with funds received from the sale.”

Councillor Richard Burrett, cabinet member for education and skills said: “We are aware that there is demand for primary and secondary school places in the area so we await this decision with interest.”

The closure of the East Grinstead campus will bring a much lower level of financial relief as the building is only leased by the college.

Ms Wright said: “The college has no plans to use the site again. Most of the East Grinstead adult short course curriculum will transfer to the Crawley campus.”

The closure of the two campuses will lead to the loss of 19 full-time posts. Ms Wright said a consultation period for staff at risk of redundancy started on April 13.

Teachers hit out at closure as a ‘betrayal of education’

A petition calling on the government to save the Haywards Heath campus of Central Sussex College has been signed by more than 4,000 people.

Teachers and lecturers were among those to share their disappointment and anger over the closure.

Craig Kenny, who teaches physics and maths, mourned the potential loss of the £30million building and its teachers as “a betrayal of education”.

He added: “Allowing sixth-form colleges to close is sabotaging the future of our country – the nurses, engineers, systems analysts of the future. A beautiful £30million building with a superb theatre and science labs. Is this going to end under the developer’s bulldozer with everything else?

“We will now see those fantastically dedicated teams of teachers and learner support assistants being dispersed to the winds – all that knowledge and expertise. This will be a betrayal of education if it is allowed to proceed.”

Dance lecturer Lianne Carter described the work of the performing arts department as “amazing” and praised the way staff developed students both personally and professionally.

She added: “It is also going to be an absolute travesty if the beautiful new facilities, including the dance studio and hub theatre are knocked down.

“An amazing resource that the local government spent a huge amount of money on, but the local community will lost the benefit of.”

Suzanne McCulloch said she had taught modern foreign languages at the college for the past eight years.

Despite knowing she could not protect her own job as languages had been cut from the A-level curriculum, she spoke up for her colleagues and the students.

Describing her colleagues as “a team of the most professional, gifted, caring and inspirational teachers you could find”, Ms McCulloch called on the government to recognise “the impact that the closure of the college will have on local young people, on parents and the local community”.

Claims by the college that there was an “over-supply” of A-level provision in the county were dismissed as “short-sighted” by former employee Penelope Todd and others.

Ms Todd said: “The population of Haywards Heath and the surrounding villages is rapidly increasing.

“There is a continuing need for a local, accessible college offering a full academic A-level curriculum alongside some vocational courses.

“Dedicated teaching and support staff have tried to meet this need in exceptionally difficult circumstances over recent years.”

Susannah Hodgson criticised college management for the timing of their decision to close, pointing out other colleges had already interviewed and offered places to the students who would make up the September intake.

Ms Hodgson questioned how those colleges were expected to cope with an additional influx of students looking for an alternative place to study.

Her concerns were echoed by Ian Ingleton, who said his daughter had been offered a place at the college, starting in September, and was now “struggling to find a replacement”.

Mr Ingleton added: “How can Central Sussex be allowed to offer places then withdraw at such notice.

“This is creating stress for my daughter when she needs to be concentrating on her studies for her upcoming GCSEs.”

As well as teachers, current and former students signed the petition.

Jack Bumstead shared the views of many when he said: “In a town that is ever-growing it is completely unacceptable and delusional to close the only college facility within 10 miles.”

Ryan Hicks added: “The college is a door to the future for many students. Without the college, I don’t think I would have gained the skills I have now.”

To sign the petition, log on to and search for ‘Save Central Sussex College Haywards Heath Campus’.

Council and colleges rally round to help students

Colleges all over the county have been approached to offer places to A-level students left high and dry by the coming closure of two Central Sussex College campuses.

The College of Richard Collyer, in Hurst Road, Horsham, was one of the first to step up after being approached by Central Sussex principal Sarah Wright.

Ms Wright said: “We have contacted all colleges in the area and have been working closely with Collyer’s and a number of other providers.

“We are confident that there is sufficient capacity in the area to take all our applicants.”

Collyer’s principal Sally Bromley said: “Our first priority is to ensure all young people who want to study A-levels are not disadvantaged and luckily Collyer’s large campus has capacity for growth following recent development, including the opening of the new Graham Baird Building in March.”

Mrs Bromley said senior Collyer’s staff would be visiting Central Sussex College to speak to staff, parents and pupils about Collyer’s, the transport links from Haywards Heath and the application process.

West Sussex County Council (WSCC) also offered advice and help to worried parents and students, asking them to email [email protected] with any questions.

Richard Burrett, cabinet member for education and skills, described the closures as “worrying news”.

He added: “Although students currently studying there will be able to continue their courses, it leaves an uncertain future for students who may have wished to start a course at the Haywards Heath campus in September.

“We are very concerned about students who may be affected by this and we are currently working to identify alternative further education opportunities for young people in the area.”

A council spokesman said WSCC was in discussions with Central Sussex College regarding the support that was being put in place for young people who were affected by the closures and said it would do all it could to ensure students were not “adversely affected by this announcement”.

Council leader Councillor Louise Goldsmith said: “We are very disappointed to hear the news about the closure of Central Sussex College’s campus at Haywards Heath.

“We know this is going to cause a lot of concern amongst parents and students and that is why we are doing all we can to find alternative places.

“The college provides valuable vocational education and we hope it is able to find a sustainable way forward for this to continue.”

While dealing with the fall-out from the Haywards Heath and East Grinstead closures, the Crawley campus became the focus of the future of Central Sussex College.

Most of the adult short courses currently held at the East Grinstead campus – which is coming to the end of its lease – will transfer to Crawley but Ms Wright said the closures would have “no direct impact on the Crawley campus”.

She added: “We will continue with our leading role as a specialist in vocational education, improving the skills and job opportunities of the local workforce and helping young people and adults train for sustainable, enjoyable, economically beneficial careers.”

In the early 2000s, planning applications were submitted to Crawley Borough Council to demolish and rebuild much of the aging site.

While permission to go ahead was given, none of the applications were followed through.

Ms Wright said there were no current plans to expand the site, in College Road, although the college would be “seeking every bit of available funding in the future to redevelop the Crawley campus”.

Part of the investment in the Crawley campus will come to fruition in the next academic year with the opening of a new IT academy and an advanced technology centre.

Ms Wright said the college had “successfully bid for two pots of funding to expand its provision in line with regional skills priorities”.

The money came from the Local Economic Partnership and a college spokesman stressed the funds could not have been used to help reduce its £25million mortgage debt.

He said: “It was bid for and won on the basis that it was spent on specific skills projects.

“It could not have been used to service debt or for any other purpose.”

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