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Colleges opt for drastic cures

TWO further education colleges have launched radical improvement programmes after receiving highly critical inspection reports.

Stroud College in Gloucestershire has received grade 4s (less than satisfactory) in governance, management, mathematics, science and computing, and general resources. Stafford College, in Staffordshire, scores 4s for both governance and management.

Since its last inspection by the Further Education Funding Council, Stroud has had three-and-a-half years to put things right, but has had only partial success.

"Outstanding" or "good" lessons were well below the average. Attendance monitoring was inadequate, as was the library.

"There has been an ineffective response by governors and managers to important strategic issues facing the college. It has not met its funding targets for the past two years and the achievement of current targets is in doubt," said inspectors. Budgets had been based on inaccurate assumptions, and financial management was weak.

But the college has acted quickly. Principal Graham Morris retired and the finance director resigned just before Christmas, following the inspection. Former vice-principal Hugh Pollock has been appointed acting principal, and a new senior management team installed. Financial management will be provided by a firm of accountants.

Two years after new managers were appointed at Stafford, problems persist, particularly with out-of-date management information systems. The report said that the full extent of their problems had not been appreciated, and although progress had been made, many weaknesses remained.

Both governance and management have been given grade 4s. Also, the college's own self-assessment significantly over-estimated the strength of thecollege's work. The college was over-generous with its grading of all except one aspect of college provision, and did not give sufficient weight to students' retention and achievements.

It appointed new principal Christine Megson in the spring of 1997, and a new management team subsequently joined her.

About a quarter of Stafford's work is done through franchise partnerships with community and commercial organisations.

The inspectors said: "Unreliable management information and attempts to bring the franchised provision under control had taken a considerable amount of time, to the detriment of other aspects of management."

Although much of the teaching was satisfactory, the proportion of outstanding lessons was "well below the average for the sector".

The data on students' retention and achievements was unreliable, inspectors said. "The college's financial management is weak and the governors have failed to pay sufficient attention to the college's financial performance," they said.

But there is some good news. The report said that the management style was open and some of the problems inherited had been dealt with successfully.

The college will receive pound;500,000 from the Standards Fund to put the management information systems right. "The spending is long overdue and will help us improve the quality of information available to both students and staff - we will have PCs in 42 staffrooms to give lecturers direct access to the records they need," said Ms Megson.

The problems of producing accurate records had made achievements hard to measure. "As a result, some disciplines received a less than favourable report, even where inspectors praised the quality of teaching," she said.

FE Focus, page II

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