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East Kent College Group’s remarkable rise while the likes of K College, South Kent College and Canterbury College floundered

The recent history of Kent’s further education offering has a road littered with the corpses of once mighty institutions.

From the former teams behind Hadlow and Canterbury to K College and South Kent College, they have come and they have gone – imploding under the weight of financial mismanagement.

Further education colleges are key sites for vocational training
Further education colleges are key sites for vocational training

Ofsted reports were, on the whole, pretty rotten and confidence in the county’s further education offering hit an all-time low. A worrying state of affairs for what should be a vital cog in Kent’s educational mechanics.

Yet from this doom and gloom, one establishment has quietly grown. It has embraced failing colleges and turned their fortunes around in the most dramatic of fashions.

Today, the East Kent College Group runs Broadstairs, Canterbury, Folkestone, Dover, Ashford and Sheppey colleges, fostering constructive relationships with local employers to ensure the skills they need are installed in the students emerging from their respective campuses.

In addition, it runs a hotel/hospitality training centre – The Yarrow, in Broadstairs - which has recently landed a Tripadvisor ‘Best of the Best’ award for 2023 – recognising it as being ranked in the top 1% of properties worldwide. No mean feat.

And, earlier this year, it achieved an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating across its college network. In fact, it received ‘outstanding’ scores in all categories inspected, a national first. Little wonder, then, that college groups across the country have been in touch to learn how to follow in their footsteps.

East Kent College Group started out from humble beginnings
East Kent College Group started out from humble beginnings

It has also spun a schools trust off its main organisation. The sister group, the EKC Schools Trust, formed in 2017, has quietly built up a portfolio of six primary schools across its catchment area and has just taken on perhaps its biggest challenge yet.

The Oasis Academy on Sheppey has long been one of the county’s most challenging. It was a step too far for the Oasis Community Learning Trust which bailed out earlier this year after nine years of talking a good game but failing to deliver a good school.

But now, in September, it will, once again, be divided into two schools – one operated by Leigh Academies, the other, the EKC Schools Trust.

The size of the challenge should not be underestimated. At its last full Ofsted inspection in June of 2022, the report said: “Too many pupils feel unsafe at this school. Some pupils told us that they ‘have had enough’ of being jostled and hurt in corridors or verbally abused. Leaders and staff do too little to challenge the foul, homophobic, racist and sexist language which is commonplace across both sites. Pupils have little confidence in leaders’ ability to deal with any concerns about bullying or discrimination. Pupils do not feel that they have a voice in this school. Their concerns are not listened to.”

And that was, genuinely, just the first paragraph.

Graham Razey was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to education. Picture: EKC Group
Graham Razey was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to education. Picture: EKC Group

Graham Razey is chief executive of the East Kent College Group. He explains: “I'm a firm believer that education leaders of the locality need to do the right thing however difficult it is. And believe me, it will be as difficult as any of the other things we've done previously.

“But every challenge is there to be overcome. And if leaders don't stand up and take that on then who is going to?

“We run a primary school [Queenborough] and a college on the island and both have outstanding Ofsted ratings.

“I have absolutely no doubt that we will have an outstanding school on the island because of the strength of the other two organisations. The relationships and partnerships we have with the people on the island will ensure that this is successful.

“What's different to what has gone before is that people have come from outside of that environment and said ‘we're going to make you better’. That's not my philosophy. My philosophy is to work with the people to provide them with the very best chances they can have in their lives and that has to be done with them, not to them.”

The Oasis Academy will divide in September – with the EKC Schools Trust taking over the running of one of the secondary schools
The Oasis Academy will divide in September – with the EKC Schools Trust taking over the running of one of the secondary schools

You can’t argue with the logic. And it’s one which has seen EKC flourish.

The catalyst was Razey’s appointment in 2010 as principal to Thanet College. It was his first leadership role and one he had been craving.

At the time, the college had just been dealt a blow. It had sunk more than £3 million into an ambitious scheme to move to a purpose-built site near Westwood Cross. But the General Election scuppered its plans – with the financial support promised by Whitehall withdrawn as the era of austerity dawned. It so rattled the previous principal she decided to step down.

“I interviewed for the job in December 2009 on the ticket of change,” explains Razey. “It was a really sleepy college, underperforming and financially broke. It was a ‘it couldn’t get any worse’ scenario.

“It was quite attractive to me because I've always worked in colleges in areas of deprivation: Hastings,Folkestone, Dover. So it was a really good opportunity for me.”

The Yarrow when it was used for administration and classrooms - today it's a swanky hotel
The Yarrow when it was used for administration and classrooms - today it's a swanky hotel

His office, when he took over, was in what is now The Yarrow hotel – back then a dilapidated, not-fit-for-purpose building that, one of his first jobs, was to empty out.

Encouraged to sell the site – a magnificent, sprawling, Grade II-listed building built in 1894 which sits within the college’s campus – he baulked at the £250,000 price proposed.

Three years later, the college obtained funding and started a huge £10m refurbishment. By 2016 it opened as a commercial hotel which also acted as the perfect platform to provide youngsters on hospitality courses crucial on-the-job training. It ticked all the boxes.

Another early decision had also been to rebrand the institution – turning it into East Kent College. It was well used to name changes. Since its creation in 1947 as the Ramsgate Technical Institute it had morphed into Thanet Technical College before settling on Thanet College. Today it is simply Broadstairs College in keeping with each of the colleges being named after the town in which they are situated; all under the EKC umbrella.

“When I first started,” says Razey, “I went to see 50 employers in Thanet. I asked them what’s the college known for and every one of them said catering. The fact catering was less than 5% of the students when I arrived didn’t seem to register.

The Yarrow Hotel next to Broadstairs College as it looks today
The Yarrow Hotel next to Broadstairs College as it looks today

“My whole first couple of years was just trying to change that perception because as fantastic as our catering provision was, the future of the college couldn't be based on catering alone.”

And then opportunity knocked.

South Kent College – which comprised of sites in Ashford, Dover and Folkestone – had been some of the most popular in the county, but poor Ofsted and poor management saw the group face significant financial pressures. By 2008 its future was up in the air until a decision was taken for the management of West Kent College – supported by the government - to take it over.

So in 2012 K College was born, promising to sprinkle some of the successful west Kent dust over its east Kent brethren. Within four years, K College was on its knees, crushed by debts of some £16m.

East Kent College bid – and won – the right to take on the Folkestone and Dover sites and suddenly its name change seemed to have been strangely prophetic.

K College – the shortlived cross-county group – collapsed in financial disarray
K College – the shortlived cross-county group – collapsed in financial disarray

The Ashford, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells sites of K College, coincidentally, were taken on by Hadlow College. An institution which, itself, became the first in the country to enter educational administration in 2019 after years of trumpeting its own success blew up in its face so dramatically. East Kent Colleges stepped in again then too, taking over Ashford.

No sooner had Razey and his executive team got to grips with fixing the problems at its new additions, another college in the county found itself on the rocks financially.

“At no point did I ever think Canterbury College would collapse,” recalls Razey. ”It had 3,500 students on one site - you couldn't break it. But they did and they did so spectacularly.

“They over-committed themselves on capital while student numbers declined because of its reputation. It had 15 years of satisfactory and requires improvement inspections and in the end it caught up with them.”

Canterbury College’s collapse in 2016 was certainly remarkable.

Canterbury College found itself sinking in a financial quagmire before the takeover
Canterbury College found itself sinking in a financial quagmire before the takeover

A government report said: “The former senior leadership team [at Canterbury] were described by staff during the visit as being ‘petrified into dysfunction’ and the principal as ‘controlling and dictatorial’.”

EKC rode in once again promising to turn it around – doubling, as it did so, the group’s size.

By the time Hadlow College had imploded and Ashford joined its ranks, it dominated further education across the east of the county.

The ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted for its colleges earlier this year was the icing on the cake.

So just how has it proved a success when so many others in the county have faltered?

Ashford College would ultimately become part of the East Kent College Group
Ashford College would ultimately become part of the East Kent College Group

“I think one of the reasons is taking the difficult decisions that need to be made,” says Razey.

“You can't get over the fact that between 2010 and 2015/16 the funding of the public sector and particularly further education was absolutely shocking. We were being cut year-on-year. It was really tough.

“So you have to take tough decisions. We made quite a lot of people redundant in that period. But those decisions needed to be made. Between 2010 and 2012, the public sector probably had got a bit bloated. Therefore the first couple of reorganisations were OK to handle.

“After that, we were cutting really good people and it’s not easy. It's not easy when you're on the front page of the paper and people are getting at you. Some organisations - and I would definitely put the likes of K College and Canterbury College in that realm at the time – were just unprepared to make the difficult decisions.

“The other thing that we did that others didn't is we tried to build friends and allies throughout the whole period. We're very outward-facing; we work very hard at relationships. So we were successful in any amount of funding that might have been out there.

You have to take tough decisions. We made quite a lot of people redundant in that period

“So when there was an opportunity, we could bid for something because we were ready.

“We won in every round of capital funding between 2012 and 2018. We needed that because the buildings were falling down. We wanted to keep attracting students. You can't do that with terrible buildings and terrible facilities. We knew the only way to counter these cuts was to grow and prosper and be ambitious.

“Some might say it was a risky strategy but every single penny we had we spent on the learners and their experience. We were absolutely committed to taking the tough decisions and investing in the learning and I think that’s what sets us apart.”

It’s nearly 14 years since he first led the college which would spawn a group. So does he consider moving on to new challenges? The answer is ‘possibly’.

“Do I love my job?” he says, “ Absolutely. Do I still love the challenge? Yes. Am I proud of what's been achieved? Immensely. Is that all about me? No, it is not. There's a whole raft of people behind me, but I am proud of the vision I set.

“At some point, whether it's today, tomorrow, five, ten or 15 years’ time, there are things in my career that I would like to do. So if opportunities present themselves then I would have a look at them.”

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