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Ambition costs college dear;FE Focus

SADDLED with insurmountable debts and a top-heavy management, Bilston was a college in crisis with no future as an independent corporation, according to an official inquiry team's report.

The 29-page document, commissioned by the Further Education Funding Council, is scathing in its assessment of the college's shortcomings, confirming the findings of its inspection report - the worst ever in further education - published in February.

The report says Bilston's finances were in a "parlous state", its governors lacked "sufficient expertise and business acumen" and staff were "diverted" from teaching by the college's myriad business interests.

"The seeds of Bilston Community College's present financial difficulties were sown in the early days of incorporation," the report says, when demand-led funding saw the college's income grow from pound;16.6 million in 199394 to pound;25.2m in 199697.

The cash for growth programme ended in 1997, reducing Bilston's funding by a fifth, but the college's ambition was undiminished and a strategic plan was drawn up predicting a 276 per cent growth in income over three years. "The most surprising feature of these financial forecasts," the report says, "is that the corporation approved them."

An attempt to challenge the legality of the funding cut - which was later dropped - contributed to "antagonistic relationships" between the college and the FEFC who had become concerned by the college's extensive franchising and trading activities.

An FEFC investigation into franchising at 14 colleges found that Bilston's provision was the worst, with many weaknesses. But instead of acting to improve arrangements, the college instructed its solicitors to dispute the report's findings.

The college's FEFC inspection in 1994 - one of the first following incorporation - had been satisfactory. But five years later, the situation at the college had deteriorated so much that inspectors agreed with only two of its self- assessment grades. The final report, published this February, included three grade 3s, six grade 4s and four grade 5s.

By late 1998, an external audit of the college's books had revealed "the unorthodox approach to budget-setting" of the college's accounting officer and the "extent of the college's difficulties ... began to dawn on governors".

The full extent of Bilston's debts is still unknown, as enquiries continue but the report says "the worst scenario recognises debts of over pound;10 million".

Since arriving on secondment from South Birmingham college last November, acting principal Alan Birks has reduced staffing levels from 747 to around 400, scaled down distant franchising, vacated underused sites, wound up the college's trading companies and redefined its mission to concentrate on the needs of the local community.

"The people of Wolverhampton should feel deeply indebted to him for the skill with which he has carried out a difficult, demanding and stressful task," the inquiry report says.

However, despite his efforts, and an improving financial position, the report concludes that the enrolment targets needed to keep the college afloat are unachieveable, and it can "see no future for Bilston Community College as an independent corporation".

But the report is hopeful of a long-term solution to the education needs of the area. "An inspiring partnership and collaborative agenda has emerged," the report concludes.

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