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Consolidation needs support

The short news piece in FE Focus ("Federation refusal", In brief, April 23) about the planned federation between Bicton and Exeter colleges offered your readers an incomplete and inaccurate account of this case study.

The reason that the federation proposal fell is that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) made the last-minute decision not to write off the historic debts of Bicton, but to try to pass them on to Exeter College.

Bicton and Exeter colleges began working together in 2008, and once David Henley joined Bicton as principal in April 2009 both institutions worked together to seek to establish the first legal federation between further education colleges. We took and adapted a federation model which is already used successfully in the higher education sector, through which Bicton was to become a company limited by guarantee within the Exeter College Group.

Public consultation, led by the LSC, took place at the turn of the year, and we received overwhelming support for our proposal. As stated during the public consultation, the proposal was based on a financial investment from Exeter, strong commitment from Bicton and the LSC writing off the historic debts owed to it by Bicton.

At "five to midnight" the LSC changed its mind, refused to write off the debts, and invited Exeter to accept a large debt on its balance sheet. Given that Exeter, in common with many other colleges, faces a significant investment in accommodation following the collapse of the LSC's property strategy last year, the college had to decline the offer.

Everyone at Exeter College is pleased to hear that the Skills Funding Agency has agreed to support Bicton as an independent college and we look forward to working with it on curriculum developments.

However, we believe that this case raises a number of important policy concerns about future federationsmergers, including process, transparency and integrity. While speculation continues about the need for consolidation in the FE sector in the face of further funding cuts, our experience is that we urgently require a transparent and supportive process to enable consolidation andor shared services to develop.

Richard Atkins, Principal, Exeter College.

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