Potential lifeline for Newton Rigg as review announced

Newton Rigg College in Cumbria, which has been earmarked for closure next year, could enjoy a stay of execution, following the announcement of new strategic review co-ordinated by the Further Education Commissioner (FEC).

News that the college is set to close emerged last month, after an initial FEC review found the site – which forms part of the wider Askham Bryan portfolio of educational establishments – was not financially viable.

“This has been a very difficult decision,” said Askham Bryan principal Tim Whitaker at the time. “However, the review has confirmed that the campus is not financially viable from the college’s perspective and would require ongoing investment to keep pace with industry skills.”

Newton Rigg College

  • Established in 1896
  • 117 staff, 667 further education students, 221 apprentices
  • Courses in agriculture, forestry, gamekeeping and equine managemen
  • Own college farm at Low Beckside, Mungrisdale
  • Further education courses in sport, hairdressing and social care
  • £1m annual deficit
  • £20m site improvements needed
  • Current students can complete their studies next year, ahead of closure in July 2021
  • Applications being accepted for September 2020

See also: MP concerned over proposed Cumbrian ag college closure

But in a surprise turn of events, the college has now announced a second strategic review, co-ordinated by the FEC, following approaches by “several interested parties with proposals for the future use of the site”.

Askham Bryan would not be drawn on what these proposals were, or what the criteria might be to assess them, and was insistent that “the decision in principle to close Newton Rigg Campus remain in place”.

But it is understood that the second review has been launched in response to pressure from Penrith MP Neil Hudson, and from the newly established Cumbrian Land-base Skills Strategy Group, chaired by Westmorland County Agricultural Society CEO Christine Knipe.

“We are not looking to simply ‘do the same again’,” she told Farmers Weekly. “But there is a huge energy to deliver the continuation of agricultural education within the county of Cumbria.

“We are already looking at what other colleges around the UK have done that has been successful and that we might emulate. And we are asking anyone who has ideas on what might work for Cumbria to come forward and feed it through to our steering group.”

Geography

There is a recognition that, due to the geography of Cumbria, it may be necessary to spread out the opportunities for learning across a wider area.

Mrs Knipe also points to opportunities for “blended learning” with other higher education centres, such as the University of Cumbria, and a possible role in continuous professional development and R&D.

“We are trying to put together a strategy that will last,” she said. “As well as agriculture, Newton Rigg is home to the National School of Forestry, and has a great gamekeeping course – it would be a tragedy for those elements to be lost.”

There is concern that the site will simply be sold to developers, given its proximity to the M6 motorway.

But the hope is that some core agricultural teaching facility will be maintained, to provide a central hub for young people in Cumbria.

Up for review

Askham Bryan says the FEC review will begin in July to explore the merits of various proposals for the future use of the Newton Rigg campus, and could last all summer.

“The objectives of the new strategic review are to promote the opportunity and test the ability of any interested parties to fund and deliver their detailed business plan and proposals for the site,” it said.

“If no parties meet the expressions of interest criteria, then the review process is likely to be completed by the end of summer 2020.

“If parties do successfully meet the criteria, then a detailed business plan and proposal bid would need to be submitted during this autumn term.”

Somewhat ambiguously, Askham Bryan insists that “the decision in principle to close Newton Rigg Campus remains in place”, with a “final decision by the governing body due to be taken in July 2020”.

Mrs Knipe described the timetable as “desperately tight”, but added the steering group aims to have one or two concrete proposals to put forward by the end of August.

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