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College fights red tape for survival

Governors reject `fanciful' LSC bid to force a merger and say its plan has implications for the whole post-16 sector.

A successful sixth form college has been threatened with forced closure to create a new super-college under new powers for the FE funding body.

St Vincent Sixth Form College in Gosport, Hampshire, had entered into voluntary talks to merge with nearby Fareham College, but its governing body rejected the deal after concluding the plan was not in students' interests.

But the local learning and skills council has pressed ahead with plans to merge the colleges against the governors' wishes, saying that by the time a final decision is made, it will have the authority to dissolve college corporations and establish new ones. A spokesman for St Vincent said the college was taking legal advice over the use of the new powers and said it intended to fight the merger plans.

"If the LSC gets away with being able to be judge, jury and executioner on effectively their own proposal, which in itself runs counter to Government policy," he said, "there is not a medium or small college in the country which would not be potentially under threat.

"The LSC has never successfully forced a merger in the past and we are resolute in our determination it stays that way."

Teaching and leadership at St Vincent were rated as good in 2005 and its improvement plan was described as "visionary" by inspectors last year, making it an unexpected candidate for a forced intervention.

According to the local LSC, one general FE college for the area will achieve more than the two existing institutions and will offer the chance of a new pound;60 million building on a single site.

It said a larger college would give better value as well as offering better access to specialist courses.

The merger proposal says: "The LSC remains committed to accommodating the views of both institutions. However, under the statutory provisions governing the dissolution of further education corporations there is no requirement to have the consent of the corporation to its dissolution. Whilst the views of the corporations of both St Vincent and Fareham College would clearly be a factor in the final decision, they would not be the only or overriding consideration."

Steve Wain, the principal of St Vincent, claimed that there are doubts that the new build would go ahead and said that the combined college would be less financially secure. He also argued that it would remove choice for students in an area where 1,500 teenagers already travel elsewhere looking for places at sixth form colleges.

"In support of the proposal, the LSC have only come up with a highly fanciful wish list of aspirations which simply do not stand up to critical examination," said Mr Wain. "As a result of St Vincent's withdrawal, the LSC is making, in effect, a proposal to itself. This is a situation we believe to be without precedent and has potentially profound implications for the whole post-16 education sector if the LSC is allowed to get away with it."

John Denham, the Secretary of State for Skills, has also warned colleges off making unnecessary mergers, saying there is no evidence that bigger is better.

The Association of Colleges said it could not comment on the individual case but said there would be safeguards which should prevent the LSC from abusing the powers, which are only due to come into force early next year.

Julian Gravatt, the association's director of funding and development, said: "AoC is working with ministers and civil servants to ensure that the intervention process has four clear stages, 39 distinct steps and respects the autonomy of colleges."

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