In March, Sussex Coast College in Hastings announced that it was merging with Sussex Downs in Eastbourne, Lewes and Newhaven to form a new sixth form and adult learning centre, East Sussex College Group. It retains existing campuses – in Hastings, those at Station Plaza and Ore Valley – and aims to keep each town’s educational provision distinctive with its own principal, management team and ‘visual identity’ represented by colour codings: green for Hastings, orange for Eastbourne, pink for Lewes, purple for Newhaven. But after less than eight months of operation, the new leadership team announced earlier this month that it intends to make cuts to the workforce: the equivalent of 40 full-time administrative and support staff including 13 classroom assistants would be going, though no frontline teaching jobs were at risk.

A consultation process that included voluntary redundancy offers open to any staff member and some redeployment opportunities ended on 22nd November; up to 120 existing employees will have to re-apply for around 80 reconstituted jobs, All interviews will have been conducted and decisions made by 21st December. Christmas cheer for some, but not for others.

In the College’s view there was no alternative. Executive Director Dan Shelley told HIP that, particularly at Sussex Downs, the ratio of staff was higher than the national norm; cutting payroll costs was an economic necessity and was in line with local demographics. The number of 16-year-olds finishing Year 11 in East Sussex schools and presenting themselves for further education has been steadily reducing from the baby boomer era and is now at a ten-year low. The fact that this trend is about to reverse, with numbers increasing again from next year, cannot save jobs in the interim.

A Five-Year Plan

Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union gave five-year plans a bad name that they haven’t quite recovered from. The directors of East Sussex College (ESC) have a strategic document which they are working on but prefer to call their ‘Five Year Education Case’. They aim to have a draft for discussion with stakeholders, including not only staff and students, but also county council and local employers, by February; they hope to finalise a programme within a further couple of months.

The merger of Sussex Coast and Sussex Downs has brought together a total of over 18,000 students within ESC. A high proportion of this number are adults on short courses, but there are over 5,000 16- to 18-year-olds doing sixth form or equivalent studies, of whom just under 1,700 attend the campuses at Station Plaza and Ore Valley. The intention is to offer across-the-board curricula for this age group so that no-one will have to travel away from their natural home location for their studies.

At higher levels there will be specialisation between the different towns and, overall, a broader range of subjects. Hastings already offers full BA degrees in differentiated aspects of art and design (fine arts, graphic design, photography, illustration, animation and ‘designer maker’ crafts), teacher training and business skills, while Ore specialises in computing, and electrical and mechanical engineering. All degrees are ‘validated’ by the University of Brighton.

But the main direction of future learning will be in the development or expansion of technical and professional courses closely aligned with local employment needs and opportunities. ESC’s website emphasises its aims as not only enabling the county’s young people to achieve better ‘A’ levels and technical qualifications but also promoting a county-wide apprenticeship programme and, overall, a ‘higher-skilled East Sussex workforce’. Already around 300 apprentices start courses each year at Hastings or Ore (or sometimes ESC provides them within the workplace) which may run for anything between one and four years.

According to Dan Shelley, ESC Executive Director, the plan is to move away from models that entail “simply bums on seats getting a qualification” towards provision in partnership with employers. The aim is to ensure that all students gain both general and specific skills that they need to prosper in a future of more flexible work patterns. We will learn further what he means when the strategic plan is revealed in the spring.

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