There is no doubt that any merger, especially with a college that was in difficulty both financially and in terms of quality, is a serious undertaking but in the case of Trafford College merging with a troubled Stockport College it made total sense.
If you were to take a look at our recently published financial accounts you might understandably disagree as these figures include the total historic losses that were transferred from Stockport College.
Financially, however, the funds we received for restructuring to date and those that we are continuing to draw on in 2018/19 along with a planned land disposal, continue to support our transformation and we are on course to deliver our plan.
We have planned for growth from 2019/20 accepting that we needed to build trust in the new college in order to attract learners back and also with an eye to the sharp increase in demographics from 2020.
It is so heartening and encouraging to see that against the same time last year we are 500 applicants ahead for 2019/20, and the majority of these prospective students, young people and adults alike, have applied to study at our Stockport Campus.
So, like many other colleges the financial challenges will continue but with the restructuring funds phased into this year we are on course to deliver to plan.
Despite a confident start I’m under no illusion that the road to transformation takes time and effort and we have been on this path now for eighteen months since we first looked at the possibility of the two colleges merging.
Stockport Campus Redevelopment
Given Stockport College's well documented predicament, and way ahead of any merger date, we needed to be absolutely certain that we would be able to secure the finances we would need to drive transformation and success.
With the Stockport estate needing significant repair we applied for restructuring support from central government and we were also successful in a bid to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority ‘Local Growth Fund’ for a capital grant to redevelop the Stockport campus.
It took fifteen months, three independent due diligence reports, countless hours to produce our robust and realistic business case, hours refining our plans both internally and with the banks, funders and stakeholders.
At our final board meeting as Trafford College in April 2018, we finally succeeded in getting all the ducks in a row and merged with a signed off restructuring agreement, a capital grant for the redevelopment programme and approval from all other parties with a say and interest in the merger.
Up for the challenge!
Many asked me if we were ‘up for the challenge!’ A number of turnaround Principals and senior teams had attempted change but little improvement had been achieved. But we were, and remain confident that we’ve done the right thing.
One of the first activities undertaken at the start of any merger talks is the public consultation, taking the views and pulse of key stakeholders and local residents and businesses.
But even given the recent history of the college and its performance, key stakeholders and users of the college all agreed that the Borough of Stockport, being one of the most economically important areas in Greater Manchester, needed a thriving college to support the community to develop the skills needed by its expanding, successful business community and in addition, to support the extensive planned regeneration of the town.
Supporting the most disadvantaged whilst ensuring stability
Therefore merging with the neighbouring Trafford College which has a long history of high quality provision and a track record of success and with complementary provision in terms of curriculum, was a good match.
From a Trafford point of view we recognised the college needed to grow to ensure its long term financial stability and we also wanted to support Greater Manchester by improving the quality of the post-16 education provision at Stockport College which continues to serve many learners from the most disadvantaged wards in the Borough.
So, 10 months in to the merger what we have achieved and are we are track to deliver our strategy for the college and, more importantly, our learners?
Delighted with progress
I’m delighted to say that at the end of the academic year 2017/18 and within 4 months of merger we have successfully raised achievement rates. In particular, for the Apprenticeships we inherited timely achievement rose from 50 per cent to 83 per cent and for 16-18 year olds achievement improved by 10 per cent to 80 per cent.
As for those students resitting Maths and English, high grades improved in both cases by 6 per cent. I would say by any measure this is quite an improvement and a testament to all the staff who worked so hard with our students on a daily basis.
We were also inspected by the QAA for our combined Higher Education provision within 6 weeks of merger and achieved a resounding judgement of full confidence and just recently we have successfully achieved Matrix accreditation.
Throughout this first year our staff have been amazing. As we formed the new combined college we went through a complete restructure and had to say goodbye to many valued team members. New ways of working across three sites brings its own challenges and our relentless drive to improve our offer will continue.
Given all these challenges and the well recorded national issues over funding rates for post-16 learners in colleges with the #LoveOurColleges campaign, and with the ongoing constraints on our ability to make pay awards, it has been truly wonderful to see how our staff have continued to dedicate their time, working together to ensure our combined success.
It is also great for all staff to see the campus redevelopment on plan and this is being achieved even with the sudden appearance of a sink hole which opened up in the middle of the campus just before Christmas, and the discovering of wide spread asbestos in one of the buildings!
I’m happy to say that these unexpected challenges are being managed alongside our estates disposal strategy. The redevelopment of Stockport campus is based on a smaller footprint than the land it occupies and we are already working on development opportunities with local stakeholders to ensure we are part of something that has the potential to create a new urban village and regenerate the town centre.
Although we need to make use of the surplus accommodation this year whilst the redevelopment work is undertaken on site, once this is complete we will conclude the sale of the land.
So, operationally and financially, all in all, we are on plan and although personally I'm sure I have more grey hairs than a year ago, and I wish I could say the sheer volume of work to run a newly formed college has helped me become slim and lithe, alas this is not so!
But against all the key performance indicators agreed with our funders and stakeholders we are on track and of course, most importantly what that means is our learners are benefitting from the improvements we have achieved and will continue to achieve together as The Trafford College Group.
Lesley Davies OBE, Principal and Chief Executive of The Trafford College Group.