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From best to bottom;FE Focus

Britain's worst. That's the inspectors' damningverdict on Bilston Community College. Ian Nash reports

THOUSANDS of students were let down by the over-ambitious plans and inadequate support at the college judged by inspectors as the worst in England.

The long-awaited 104-page report on Bilston Community College paints a picture of poorly-trained and ill-prepared management unable to control the quality of teaching and support systems needed for effective managers of the college.

Its publication was pre-empted by the appointment of a hit-squad of four senior educationists, sent in by ministers and their advisers to devise a rescue plan.

Bilston has sunk from being one of the most far-sighted and effective colleges - five years ago it reached out to the local community with a wide range of courses - to one of the least effective.

Further Education Funding Council inspectors, in their report to be published today, expose the over-inflated views senior staff had of themselves. A self-assessment report by the college bears little relation to external assessments, the inspectors say.

"The college failed to identify, or based insufficient emphasis upon, many weaknesses. Students' achievements were often not fully considered and when performance data were used for evidence, they were incomplete and unreliable. The inspection team was not able to agree with many of the college's judgments," they say in the report.

They agreed with only one of the grades in the self-assessment, dismissing the rest as "over-generous". And the conclusion constantly echoed throughout the report is that the commercially-orientated business plans were over-ambitious, deflecting attention from the essentials of teaching.

The reports will be seized on by opponents of the free-market model since the expansion plans which brought the college down were only possible under the terms of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act which made hard-nosed commercial considerations a driving force.

While the number of college companies and other commercial operations grew, the attention to quality of education declined. The inspectors list 17 issues that need to be addressed urgently. They include everything from ineffective support, weak teaching and poor student attendance, to unsatisfactory performance and inadequate management of the curriculum.

All areas of management, particularly financial control, need to be addressed, the inspectors say. This is reflected in the awarding of the bottom grade of 5 for management, governance, quality assurance and student support. All other grades were 4 or 5.

Inspectors acknowledge the remarkable strides forward achieved by South Birmingham College principal Alan Birks, who was seconded to Bilston after Keith Wymer's departure. But they point to the major steps needed to bring off a recovery.

Failings in the curriculum observed by inspectors were typified by computing and information technology. There was "ineffective teaching methods, poor retention on most courses, inadequate monitoring and reporting of students' progress, weak course reviews and ineffective management of full-time courses."

The failings which are understood to have caused Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett greatest grief are those in basic education. This is one of the key measures of colleges' effectiveness in not only reaching but providing for socially excluded minorities.

The poor teaching was not identified in the self-assessment report, say the inspectors who, again, point to ineffective teaching, lack of co-ordination and poor attendance - the average attendance in lessons observed was 59 per cent.

They conclude that while the college's vision of equal opportunities, community involvement and widening participation was laudable, it never matched reality.

Bilston's fate, 31

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