Between us we have 60 years’ experience of education in the 11 to 19 age group, write Mike Dixon, former head of Park College, and Nick Swabey, former college manager.
We have read the consultation document concerning merger between Sussex Downs and Sussex Coast Colleges carefully and whilst we, of course, applaud the bold statements it makes regarding standards and learner and employer responsiveness we cannot begin to see how the aspirations set out in the document can be achieved by merging two colleges that are 20 miles apart.
Anyone with any involvement with the EVOC/Lewes merger will know all too well the major difficulties surrounding merging two colleges that were 17 miles apart.
The SDC leadership has an extremely poor record as regards ‘maintaining strong brands’.
In 2003 Governors and staff at SDC and Park College signed up to a collegiate model of merger only to see the strong and successful Park College ‘brand’ systematically dismantled to the point where we now have an anonymous ‘sixth form centre’ and the Park ‘brand’ has completely disappeared.
This not only dishonoured the original agreement but also led to plummeting student numbers with young Eastbourne residents getting on buses and trains and heading for genuine sixth form colleges like Bexhill College which has benefitted enormously from the demise of Park College.
We know that students learn best when they feel part of a small, caring community with its own identity.
Merger on this scale will run the risk of students and staff struggling to feel part of a strong, local, supportive community.
Clearly this merger is financially motivated and driven in part by the recent area review of Further Education.
FE is funded inadequately and so it would make much more sense for the colleges and others to enter in to a looser federation that would allow back office savings to be made and efficiencies to be won in procurement areas.
There would be plenty of opportunities for the two colleges to collaborate and cooperate effectively especially around the skills agenda.
Rather than full merger with all the attendant costs and paralysing bureaucracy a full programme of shared services should be explored which would lead to the financial savings that are required in the absence of adequate government funding.
Eastbourne has a population of around 100,000 and Hastings has a population of about 90,000.
Surely those communities deserve their own vibrant, responsive colleges with their own proud identities?
Collaboration and cooperation between the colleges in East Sussex is of course vital and in the best interests of learners but those learners will always do best where they feel they belong.
Creating one huge college from colleges 20 miles apart will not encourage that crucial sense of belonging.