Hadlow College: from zero to hero
PUBLISHED: 09:36 19 June 2018 | UPDATED: 09:36 19 June 2018
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
How vision, passion and sheer nerve turned a failing land-based college into an outstanding institution
One of Kent’s biggest success stories has been the rapid rise of Hadlow College (now Hadlow Group) in the past 15 years. Coupled with the celebration this 2017/2018 academic year of its 50th anniversary, it seemed opportune to look at the land-based college’s journey from zero to hero and its economic and social impact over more than a decade.
I’m in the Broadview Tearooms with Group Deputy Principal and CEO Mark Lumsdon-Taylor to discuss over a cuppa Hadlow’s past, present and exciting future with digitisation at its heart.
Rewind to 2002/2003 and the picture was a very different one. Mark was then director of audit at chartered accountants MHA MacIntyre Hudson in London and only knew Hadlow as a client – and one that was on its last legs.
However, he’d quickly picked up that the college’s greatest asset was its staff, including then-acting principal Paul Hannan, whose “inimitable charm” persuaded the twenty-something City boy to come on board to help “sort it out.”
Commissioned for six months with an initial brief as a ‘trouble shooter’ to design and implement a fiscal recovery and effect change within the college’s central services, Mark and a small team set to work to help rebuild the business. In September 2003, just before the first Ofsted inspection, asked if he wanted to go or stay Mark told MHA he’d “do it for a couple of years.”
However, after just scraping through that inspection, but with Government reviews in place that recommended Hadlow for break up and merger hanging over their heads, the only way was up – and Mark can never resist a challenge.
Again Paul was a big influence on his decision. “Paul simply said ‘we need you to stay.’ By then the place had got under my skin.”
Fifteen years on and the two men, both from the north east but very different personalities, are still working side by side, united by their passion for the empire they have created, and a solid friendship underpinned by mutual respect.
They even live opposite one another on campus and joke with each other with the ease of long-standing mates and neighbours.
“I’ve always been the City boy, very corporate in my outlook and what I knew about rural in 2002 you could write on a postage stamp and still have space! laughs Mark.
“Paul is a family man, a teacher by training [he lectured in further and higher education after completing his degree and PGCE in Business Studies] and is a brilliant individual with no airs and graces.
“He says it as it is and has an approach that is very engaging, whereas mine is slightly more corporate, more business focused. Together we make a really good team. Paul has also drummed into me over the last 14 years that the most important thing is our students – who we refer to us as our clients and treat with the utmost respect – and he’s right.”
But there is grit there too. “Paul and I do challenge each other very constructively and that critical challenge makes the difference between a ‘yes’ team and those who will say ‘hang on a minute, have your thought of such and such…’ however hard that may be.
“And we do have a bit of a giggle on occasions [the photoshoot takes ages, they’re laughing so much] while making core commitments that we’ve never swerved away from, like the investment in horticulture and agriculture. They are our two pillars and fundamental to the business moving forward. It’s governor ratified that we would always
focus on those twin pillars.
You never sell your silver.”
Mark adds: “In London all I did was make pots of cash for other people. I loved what I did, but here we’re making a difference in people’s lives, building opportunities that will continue long after us.”
And so the transformation of the business began. “I went hell for leather with brand, positioning, culture, curriculum development, innovation,” says Mark.
The original ‘H’ logo was modernised and turned into the distinctive brand it is today (one of Mark’s favourite sayings is ‘Hadlow – never knowingly underbranded’) and positioned as a rural institution.
“Paul was very keen to get rid of anything that wasn’t rural and to get back to first principles.
“In 2006 we built and opened the Broadview garden centre and tearooms, from nothing. We came up with one third FE, one third HE and one third degree as our core. The governing body were amazing, they went through the whole strategic review process for us while we got on with building the college, growing numbers and improving quality standards.”
A second Ofsted Skills Inspection in 2005 resulted in a ‘good’ grade and the drive was on toward a Grade 1. This was magnificently achieved in 2010 when the College was awarded ‘outstanding’ for all its provision. A major boost for all.
“In 2010 we set ourselves three new challenges: to build a rural school (the brainwave of governor Harvey Guntripp, it opened in 2017); get something out of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics, which we did with the Greenwich equestrian rehabilitation and research centre between 2010-2014, the first of its kind.”
The third challenge came in the unlikely guise of the former Betteshanger colliery in East Kent.
Now Betteshanger Sustainable Parks, the ‘orphan’ that no one wanted to deal with is a shining example of how old energy can be transformed into renewable new energy – while at the same time celebrating Kent’s largely forgotten mining heritage. It also now boasts the world’s longest building.
“I wanted to build a skyscraper in East Kent and was told I couldn’t, then the architects said let’s put it on the floor – which is what we did. Our ‘skyscraper on the floor’
is longer than The Gherkin.
“Who else would be mad enough to build Europe’s longest building on a moving slag heap? It was one of the biggest risks we’ve ever taken. But we do not fail and we do not quit; we always find a way.”
Similarly bold was Hadlow’s successful bid for K College Group – the organisation that was going to take it over in 2003 when Hadlow was recommended for merger, but by 2014 was in big financial trouble.
Taking over the Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells campuses as West Kent College and Ashford campus as Ashford College, there began a great recovery of curriculum and teaching, learning and quality standards that were in a similar position to Hadlow in its former life.
“When we acquired West Kent we appointed a new senior management team and developed the business as a Group, while very much protecting the sovereign identities of Hadlow College, West Kent College and Ashford College, as well as the new Rural Community School,” says Mark.
The new Ashford College campus opened its doors to its first intake of students in September 2017, having taken just four years to build, the first of Ashford Borough Council’s ‘Big 8’ projects to reach completion.
And now there is a half-century milestone anniversary to mark, and Hadlow Group is of course doing it in style. Vision 50, launched at a black-tie celebratory dinner last September, marks a new chapter in its already remarkable history.
It addresses the future of rural education and training and how to delivery a sustainable future for the industries it supports.
Next month’s Kent County Show, where Hadlow Group is always a major player, will see the unveiling of the Vision 50 prototype with a live demonstration complete with drones and robotics on screen.
It’s a dream come true for the self-confessed ‘Trekkie’ and car enthusiast, but on a serious note, Mark sees the innvoation as crucial to the future of rural industries, in particular food and farming, underpinned by the very best in technology and digitisation.
As he says: “We all need to eat and without that food security, nothing else counts.”
While Vision 50 – Hadlow’s vision of what rural education will be like in 50 years’ time – is a key part of the Hadlow legacy, in terms of the Group as a whole Mark is aiming high. “I would love to have it seen as the national exemplar for how educational institutions, both Further and Higher, can create commercial corporate groups that reduce their dependency on government funding but provide exemplar service in a digitised, modern, business-focused way.
“The world has changed from just five years ago and we’ve got to change with it. You can’t keep on doing the same thing – mix it
up. Ambition and drive and vision, that’s what you need.
You also need good people around you and Mark, who tells me his most enjoyable part of the year is speech day, watching around 6,000 students over five days receive their awards, says: “Underpinning every part of our achievements has been the commitment and support of a phenomenal team.
“Without the senior staff team and the tier-three managers, this organisation would not deliver.
We aim to make every single one of our staff and students valued.”
The big numbers
• Grade 4
• 75 staff
•-£5m negative balance sheet
• 2 operational campuses
• £500m loss, £3m turnover
• £1.5m overdraft
• 400 dead plants
• 350 students
• 50 per cent success rate
• 1 new building in
• 20 years
• 155 residential rooms, many 40 years old
• Grade 1 and grade 2s
• 1100 staff
• 13 years of profits
• +£190m balance sheet
• £180m invested in new facilities
• 9 operational campuses
• 8500 students
• 85 per cent achievement rates
• 1 brand new campus in Ashford
• 187m longest building in Europe
• 1 equestrian centre legacy of the 2012 London Olympics
• 1 first UK Rural School
Get in touch
Hadlow, nr Tonbridge TN11 0AL
01732 850551 or firstname.lastname@example.org