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TX: 19.05.09 2040-2100



A training session for blind footballers on a purpose built pitch in a purpose built
stadium. It's at the Royal National College for the Blind at Hereford. We'll talk more
about the game itself later. But we're taking up an invitation to come and see it,
issued almost a year ago. At the time the residential college, which provides further
and vocational education for visually impaired students over 16, seemed in a state of
simmering discontent. A number of staff dismissed under acrimonious circumstances,
courses cut and accusations that the college had lost its way. In particular training for
traditional jobs, such as piano tuning, was being run down with the argument that this
was no longer providing enough job placements and that the future lay with a brand
new multimillion pound development - a sports and health centre - which was going
to host the 2012 football tournament for the Paralympics and provide jobs for
students, prestige for the college and much needed finance as a facility for the people
of Hereford and its surroundings. So when I visited the college, last week, I met Ian
Pickford, interim principal and chief executive, brought in for a year to sort the
college out and I put this straight question to him:

Is the sports and health centre, is that a saviour or is it a white elephant?

I'm laughing because of the thought it could be a white elephant. That sports centre is
a centre that many commercial organisations, many local councils, would give their
hind teeth for. It is a phenomenal centre. You have to remember it's largely all been
paid for. There's some long term loans that we've taken on but the vast majority of
the funding has come - Football Association put a million pounds in; Advantage West
Midlands one million; the Learning Skills Council, they put 8.1 million in - fantastic
vision from their part. So we're talking about a centre that's been paid for but is now
providing what students want, the local people want and the local authority wants.

So, first of all, the conducted tour. Master of ceremonies in overall charge of the
development Tony Larkin. First stop the steam room.

Have you been in a steam room?

Err. I'm not sure I have actually. I've probably tried to avoid them.

Well this is your experience then. You've got the sauna, which is a dry heat; the
steam room which is a wet heat, it's good for recovery, so if you've done a lot of
training it actually relaxes the muscles but it also cleans the pores of the skin etc., so
there's a lot of health things why we go into it. So we'll quickly go in for a few
seconds. We're standing up but if we sat down in this it's obviously - you know you
can feel it, so it gets right into the pores.

You're not supposed to come in wearing a sweater are you.

No, no or a suit.

I'm sweating a bit in about 15 seconds.

You are!

The complex, known as The Point 4, has a dual purpose - to provide comprehensive
sports facilities for the students leading to jobs and a top of the range sports and health
club for the public. And the idea linking both that much of the running of it will be
done by students.

My name's Dan Simkiss, I was a student at the college from 2008 through 2009, I
studied music technology. Towards the end of my course it came about that I could
stay on and work for the college for six months. So I took the opportunity and luckily
it was in the new centre, so it was quite an opportunity for me.

So what does this job involve Dan?

I work on the front desk, reception, and it's taking bookings, working with the general
public as well as the students and also taking phone calls, messages, sorting out
memberships. There's a lot for me to be doing on the desk.

Tell me a bit more about you and your background and your visual impairment, how
you came to be at Royal National College in the first place.

Well I was born with myopia, which developed into [indistinct word] myopia and
then I started developing stigmatisms on my eyes and I had to leave my old job,
assistant manager of a restaurant on the motorway service stations, and I was there for
about 18 months and then of course I was made redundant. And then I was put
through to the Royal National College and I've been here since February 2008 and it's
been brilliant. My future aim would be to get either full time employment with RNC
or full time employment in the customer service industry.

So really this is very relevant to what you want to end up doing?

Oh gosh yeah, it's such valuable work experience.

My name's Chris [indistinct word] I'm the centre manager of The Point Four, I
manage the centre on a day-to-day basis and it covers the whole environment from the
sport, the spa side, the seminar, the socialising, it's not just for the students, it's for the
community and local national and world governing bodies.

So just spell out for me a bit more of all the facilities that there are here.

Well we've got an international sized indoor arena, it sounds a little bit grand but you
need to bear in mind we're hosting the 2010 Blind World Cup tournament, welcoming
over 12 nations from all over the world. We have an international sized outdoor
football pitch; two spa areas, a 50 station community gym that's supported by a 23
station student gym and that's where the students will learn to become fitness
instructors, where we can give them the opportunity to be valued members of a
thriving business.

What's the balance here between the teaching side or the learning side of it from the
students point of view and this as a facility for the community because presumably
you've got a bit of a balancing act to perform haven't you?

Yes we do but first and foremost the building was developed for the students, it was
here to benefit the students, it was here to assist Tony Larkin and the development of
the Great Britain football squad but it was all about the students. It's also about giving
them the opportunity to interact with members of the community, so when they go
back home, when they go and seek other jobs, they are in an environment that they're
comfortable with. It's not just about giving the students that opportunity as well, it's
about giving the community the chance to be part of this environment.

Well we're back in the Bistro and I'm with Natasha and Millie and Lorna, who are all
students here. This is a new facility, I mean what do you use in here?

I haven't used the gym yet even though I've been inducted, it's just pure laziness. I use
the sauna and Jacuzzi and steam room and then here obviously.

We mainly come in here for food - for lunch and socialising really.

It's a nice place to be.

Yeah especially when you can get out on the balcony when it's nice and sunny.

But for your own good don't you need to exercise as well as use this as a place to eat

We have to walk here and walk to our lectures and stuff.

So it is like having your own sports and health club?

And it's free.

Because you're students?

Yeah. Not for anybody else.

How popular is it proving?

By students it's popular, by the public - yeah.

I don't think there's enough advertising for it for the public.

Yeah it needs to have more advertising for the public.

I mean do you think the potential is here?

Yeah definitely. And what would be good as well is the public mixing with people
with visual impairments as well to understand.

I was going to ask you that - I mean - that's the idea, I'm told, how much is that
actually happening at the moment?
Not much.

Not much at the moment, no.

I'm going to stop you there because actually girls you're talking about things that
perhaps you haven't got the awareness of. We've done masses of advertising - 24,000
households in Hereford have had letters, we've had open days ...

Why aren't they here then?

We've got 400 ...

This morning we had about 40 odd people in at 7 o'clock and again in the evening

It's just we never see them.

We used it at 7 in the morning and there was about 15 people in it.

Well the voice you heard there was Kathy Fletcher who is head of Sales and
Marketing. You obviously feel that the marketing is going reasonably well at this -
what is an early stage I guess?

Yes it was interesting what the girls said because obviously they haven't got the input
or the knowledge but we've only been open for four weeks, so we're brand new and
shiny, so in terms of advertising in the space of a month we have got 400 - almost 400
members and those bookings, so it's going well.

What about that point of interaction that the girls made - is that going to happen just
by natural osmosis or are there things that you have to do or do you have to accept
that maybe there will be a bit of them and us?

I hope that's not the case because when members come and join and use our facilities
we induct them, we give them some guidelines on the college and remind them that
this is predominantly a teaching environment that has perfect facilities that they're
benefiting from. So there is going to be integration but we're hoping that things like
the World Blind Football Tournament next year, that will get more people from
Hereford and the West Midlands come down to support the national team, to get
involved with blind football because for sighted people the concept of blind football is
a very unusual and exciting one.

Well unusual it may be but as far as the players are concerned, and I was one in my
youth, it's just our version of football, played in a highly competitive way. The
special features are pretty obvious when you think about them - a rattling ball, a
sophisticated system of calling to identify team members to pass to and an enclosed
pitch where at this centre the sides have been especially designed to reduce confusing
echoes. It's the first time Great Britain has ever had a tailor-made football stadium
and it's an exciting prospect for players. But how far is this an answer for a college
with responsibilities and problems that go way beyond the playing of sport, providing
core education in Braille, computer and other skills for students over 16 and preparing
them for the job market and with some acknowledged problems too. A shortfall of
half a million pounds in its current finances, a backlog of employment tribunals after
the dismissal of some staff and perhaps most worrying of all in the long run changes
in the way the tuition and residential care fees of students are paid for, shifting the
responsibility from the National Learning and Skills Council, that's the LSC, to local
authorities in a way which hasn't yet been clearly spelt out. So after my tour I sat
down with interim principal Ian Pickford to talk about its future. First of all, what
about this question of who pays for students.

We are in this very much of an interim period, moving from LSC funding and DWP -
Department of Work and Pensions - funding for our older clients and we are moving
to local authority and local authority funding. We have a phenomenal relationship
with our local authority, we work very much with them, we're looking at all sorts of
opportunities for the future with them. But I do believe - and it would be remiss of
me to be on a national programme like this without saying I think there's a lack of
joined up writing in terms of policy. And frequently one of the things that irritates us
at Royal National College is it's not about the total spend, it's about which budget
does it come from because maybe the costs of bringing a student to a specialist
college - you see it in one annual sum - those very same costs are maybe equally high
or maybe higher in a so-called mainstream with added facilities but you don't see that
because they come from separate budgets.

I've heard a suggestion that you'd be 40 students down this year, this coming year, is
that true?

If you interviewed chief execs and principals over the last five years, last 10 years,
they would say at this time of year there's always a problem of knowing whether the
funding would come through. This is back to the question I have about joined up
writing. On the one hand we have the Learning Skills Council which has been
phenomenally supportive, putting £8.1 million into the superb facilities that you've
seen at The Point Four and yet on the other hand we don't yet know whether we're
going to get the funding approved for our learners who desperately need and would
benefit so much from coming to a college like this. So it's that funding process and
it's traditional at this time of year to have a degree of nervousness.
But what does that mean in terms of you doing the arithmetic of how you can carry
on, that's a basic part of your income isn't it?

At this point in time we're no worse a position than we would have been in any
previous time at this time of year as we sit here in May.

In addition to money directly for students the college has three other streams of
income. What it calls services and products which includes charging for the training
of external learners; it's a charity so it can raise money and the hoped for windfall
from the sports and health centre. So how fragile are the finances of the college and
why is a latest round of a proposed 12 redundancies necessary?

Latest sounds a bit dramatic but we have recently made a number of positions at risk,
we're still going through that process. That has to be put in the context of the 24 jobs
that we've created in recent weeks and months, a number of those people whose jobs
are at risk, who if that is confirmed a number of those people will get other jobs. But
life moves on in a changing environment, I mean even the BBC I understand is not
immune to job changes and changes of that environment. And one of the elements
that we try to ensure is that if you have difficult decisions to make that they be made
openly, they made honestly and that the process is done as well as can be expected
under the circumstances, that doesn't belittle in any way whatsoever the severe
consequences to an individual whose position may be made redundant.

And it has been a painful process, hasn't it, you've got a number of tribunals, I think,
outstanding where people do feel that they've been dealt with unfairly?

I think you're there talking about a previous regime, a previous time, I think in our
current circumstances I haven't had a single person who has come to me at any stage
during the process that we're now going through and raised any concerns in terms of
the fairness, in terms of the way it has been done from the very first announcement
and the responsibility I take personally for that.

But they are still hanging over you, a lot of them haven't been resolved and they could
have financial implications for you, depending on which way they go?

I think the college through various devices and mechanisms is immune to the
financial consequences of those decisions. So those decisions which do rest
potentially with a tribunal, albeit we sincerely hope that they will be settled
beforehand, and that's a matter for solicitors and others, but those items which are a
hang over from a very long time ago, in a different era ...
Only a year or so.

In a fast moving college, like the Royal National College, that's a long time. I mean if
you ask anybody around I think you got the flavour of that from the people you've
spoken to, the Royal National College today is a very different place than we were six
months ago.

Can I ask you specifically what part does the new sports and health centre play in the
college's future finances?

We're looking for it to generate something approaching three quarters of a million
pounds worth of revenue a year. Now the effect of it on our bottom line of course is I
am a businessman and I come from a business environment where profit motive is one
that you'd always look to. Of course in a college it's entirely different to that, at
college yes we want to generate surpluses at the end of the year but the key thing we
want is a balanced budget and that's what we have to work towards, we haven't got
one at the moment but we are working towards that with the plans that we have going

So how secure is the college's finances - you said you weren't in balance so what's the

Well clearly one doesn't make posts redundant for the sake of it, one makes posts
redundant to bring about an end and part of that end is about a balanced budget.

So cutting costs.

It's cutting costs.

So can I ask you again? How serious is the financial situation if you're not in

The future of this college is not at threat.

So why did the auditor and the college's accounts to the Charity Commission feel it
necessary to cast significant doubt on its ability to continue as a going concern?

I mean really perhaps you should ask the auditors that but they were - that was put in
by previous auditors after the time they found out that they weren't getting the new
contract and also I should say that the wording that was put in is very, very common
in a large number of institutions nowadays. I think post the banking crisis a lot of
auditors are incredibly nervous about making bland statements in terms of the future
of organisations and therefore they frequently now put those sort of caveats in to
protect their position going forward. The thing I would think ...

A lot of banks - a lot of banks are quite nervous as well and you have a loan of over
£2 million I think.

We have a long term loan that's secured, we have a long term relationship, a long term
contract with that. The other thing is we're very asset rich here and clearly the one
thing we don't want to do is sell our silver or the family silver. But you know we
have six or seven houses which aren't fully used at the moment, directly for college
activities. Those houses could be sold if they want to, they're currently on various
short term arrangements. So we're incredibly asset rich. No one walking round the
college couldn't see the strength of our asset base here.

You did warn staff, I think, at a recent meeting that the college faced a shortfall in
cash, I think you said a half a million and it could be a million pounds if things went
on as they were. You wouldn't tell people that there was a shortfall, you wouldn't
want to go in front of them and tell them that unless it wasn't a fairly serious situation
would you?

You don't make 12 posts redundant unless it's a serious situation. I wouldn't make
one person's redundant unless it was a serious situation. So part of explaining the
logic behind putting 12 positions at risk and going through that process was to explain
the reasons why. But the savings from those positions, if they are confirmed, are
quite substantial and they will move us very substantially on the road that we want to
bring us about to the financial security we need. And I now would publicly, if you
want to put this out on your programme, I would publicly challenge the morning after
this goes out if there's a single student or a single staff member who is - feels
disgruntled, feels fed up, feels that they're oppressed, feels that we haven't listened to
them to come and meet with me straightaway, the morning after this programme goes
out, and discuss those issues and I suspect there'll be very few.

You've issued a challenge Ian Pickford, people might want to take it up and we'd be
interested in the results.

I would be delighted if they did and Peter I will phone you to let you know what the
results are.

And we'd like to hear from you too 0800 044 044 is the number. From me, Peter
White, my producer Cheryl Gabriel at the Royal National College in Hereford,


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