Hadlow College is flourishing after sowing the seeds of reform three years ago, writes Amy McLellan

From the hunting ban to the foot-and-mouth crisis to declining farm incomes, it's been a torrid decade for those who make their living from the land. It's also been a tough time for many in the land-based education sector, with a number of specialist colleges struggling to retain numbers or merging with larger institutions.

Hadlow College in Tonbridge, Kent has not been immune. Three years ago, the college was, according to one insider, on its knees and in a state of virtual anarchy. The institution was carrying a loss, losing students and earning itself a terrible reputation.

Paul Hannan remembers these dark days. He was appointed vice-principal in 2001 and quickly realised there were major problems that needed to be tackled. "There was no structure, no leadership," says Hannan, now acting principal. "It was a very difficult time, very frustrating."

Finally, the board of governors acted. The principal left and new management was brought in with a mandate for radical change. "I saw the staff in September 2002 and told them there would be major changes, including 60 redundancies," Hannan says. "We closed sites overnight, and by the middle of December two-thirds of the people that needed to go had gone. Organisations that dwell on change create even worse feelings. You have to rip the plaster off."

Acting finance director Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, one of the new faces brought in to tackle the problems, backs this. "It had to be done quickly because the college was on borrowed time."

The turnaround wasn't just about cuts; 40 new appointments were made to shore up the management structure and several million pounds invested in refurbishing halls of residence and building new labs and walk-in equine classrooms. The college also has farms, an animal-care unit and retail garden centre.

"We also invested heavily in marketing, which was a gamble," Lumsdon-Taylor says. "We put it about that we were young and dynamic, invested in a new fleet of branded vehicles, made sure the college looked the part, and then opened up to visitors."

Efforts were made to build links with land-based employers, a move that gained impetus when, in 2003, the Learning and Skills Council for Kent & Medway launched a strategic area review of the land-based sector. July 2004 saw the college launch its Business and Community Unit to nurture relationships with employers. There have been some successes on this front: Hadlow provides horticultural training to local Homebase staff and Greenwich's road sweepers.

There have been difficult times - not least an Ofsted inspection in October 2003 that judged the college's overall provision to be inadequate - but the hard work and commitment of the staff appears to have brought real changes.

According to Lumsdon-Taylor, in February 2003 there were 140 staff, turnover was £5.8m and losses were running at £300,000. Today, turnover stands at £8m, the staff number 170 and the college is turning strong surpluses. Full-time student numbers have risen from 320 to 500, and the college is hoping for 650 next year.

Ofsted's post-inspection visits have noted the improvements and a follow-up this autumn is expected to result in a much better grading. The Kent & Medway LSC has also recognised the improvements. However, the conclusions of the strategic area review have not been universally welcomed. The LSC backs a merger of Hadlow with West Kent FE College and the University of Greenwich, which it believes would provide the college with the means to expand its curriculum, enable ongoing investment, reduce the administrative burden and ensure a long-term viable future for land-based education in the county.

Hadlow has formally rejected the proposal. "The needs of the land-based sector are best met through specialist colleges," Hannan says. But Jane Ball, the director of quality and review at LSC Kent & Medway, disagrees. "Other mergers that have taken place in the sector, often in much more critical situations than Hadlow, have not seen the land-based colleges lose their specialism," Ball says.

Hadlow is keen to resolve the matter and focus on building up its land-based learning and training capabilities. This has disappointed the authors of the strategic area review.

"We feel the merger would help take Hadlow to the next level," says the LSC's executive director, Simon Norton. "Through planning and funding we will continue to support the college, but we cannot buy into a big step-change unless we agree on this critical point." Although Hadlow has turned the page, another chapter in its history is just beginning.