Easton & Otley’s ‘turnaround’ governor aims to make college an innovation hub
- Credit: Archant
Business heavyweight Mark Pendlington is no stranger to crises, having at one time headed up the communications team for the late Conservative politician Cecil Parkinson, during his stormy reign as a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher.
Last August, the Anglian Water group director and former New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) chair accepted what could turn out to be his most challenging role to date - and one which could be central to the future success of Suffolk and Norfolk’s food and farming sector after Brexit.
His appointment as chair of governors at Easton and Otley College followed a damning Ofsted inspection, which resulted in the land college plunging from a ‘good’ to an ‘inadequate’ rating. Following Mark’s appointment, then principal, David Henley, quit his post, and a new team led by acting principal, Jane Townsend, started to take shape.
Despite his demanding day job, Mark has been deeply involved in moulding this new structure, offering his time and services without accepting remuneration or expenses (he sees it as his civic duty), often visiting several times a week out of hours.
Clearly, the task of turning around the college from its deemed ‘failing’ status has become a mission, and he is determined not only to secure its long-term future, but to raise its status to one which better befits a region with deep agricultural roots and a strong food and drink sector. Like many, he wonders why farming students wanting the best agricultural grounding are heading out of the counties to acquire the necessary knowledge instead of getting a top-notch higher education closer to home.
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The turnaround has involved some tough decisions - the 656-strong staff across the two campuses has been cut to 637 since July - a net loss of 19 staff (3%) in order to bring the college within budget and to tailor its offer to courses which students want.
It now teaches 265 courses, including 26 which have been established within the last 12 months, but minus 21 which have been put on hold and a further 17 which no longer exist. However, more higher education and commercial courses are now in place than there were a year ago.
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It is now recruiting for two key posts - a new principal and, in a newly-created role which Mark sees as vital to the future success and viability of the college, a commercial director, who will really begin to look at drawing in funds and getting the most out of the college’s assets.
He is also aiming to create a pared-down board of governors with the skills and background required to lead the college’s transformation. Already, two new governors, Sandy Ruddock (of Woodbridge sauces firm Scarlett & Mustard) and further education expert Fiona Ross have been brought on board.
Even though the changes Mark has implemented are only a few months old, he believes that great progress is already being made and that there are already clear signs of recovery.
Meantime he has been drawing inspiration from top colleges such as Harper Adams and its ‘hands-free hectare’ project experimenting with growing a crop without setting foot in the field, and from top academics in the field of agricultural research. He hopes to attract great innovators to set up home at Easton & Otley, and thereby create a momentum behind it to take it to the next level - he has a “very clear vision of where it can be”, he says. What he wants to create is a distinctive, relevant and modern college which can lead the region’s farmers and rural entrepreneurs into a brighter place.
“I’m trying to get people to realise there’s so much potential here - come and help us,” he says.
“I see farms as businesses. So whether you are in a barn conversion with a great idea or a whether you are a farmer managing 1,000ha, we need to be supportive of those industries. Those people we want to keep in the rural economy.”
Mark has already written to 300 senior stakeholders, setting out how they can help with this transformation, following the Ofsted assessment, which he called a “real call to action”
“What went wrong wasn’t wilful. It was a situation that developed over some time and I think it happened at a time when the college was on the cusp of realising that a very different future had to be developed and was absolutely necessary for long term sustainable survival,” he says.
“It’s not about making business as usual more exciting - it’s about being really relevant to the industry, five, 10 or 50 years ahead.”
He adds: “We are going to get our act together so they don’t want to go to Harper Adams - they want to go to Easton and Otley.”