Cracking college boost for Crack city

Ian Nash

They called Deptford "Crack city" and pointed the finger at Lewisham College students as the dealers and addicts.

Police statistics bore out the claims for Deptford but not for the college. Nevertheless, Lewisham was stuck with the label. The media assault came almost to the day that Ruth Silver took over as principal in 1991. "It summed up the image too many people unjustly held,"she said.

A Further Education Funding Council Inspectors' report published today is, therefore, a remarkable testimony to change in four years. With grade 1s for responsiveness, management, special needs and student recruitment, guidance and support, the report puts the college well near the top of the FE college inspection league.

It has serious academic weaknesses in GCSEs and A-levels, particularly in science and maths, for school-leavers. But its adult performance (and nine out of 10 students are over 19) is second to none. Its provision for students with learning difficulties and disabilities is "of outstanding quality", say the inspectors.

But the biggest weakness highlighted by the report is beyond the control of the college - lack of resources. And there is concern, though it is not made explicit in the report, that an underclass of disaffected students could seriously undermine the work of the college.

For example, all new students are tested to see if they need extra support for basic literacy and numeracy skills training but only a limited number get it. "Since resources were limited, it was decided to concentrate support on borderline students who had the best chance of succeeding if given extra help," say the inspectors.

Ms Silver admitted: "It makes me weep. But we cannot hit Government targets and make sure that those who need most help get it. It's a rough decision but we don't have the cash for support staff."

Urgently-needed child care facilities are similarly rationed - three centres can provide only 48 places - and out of 492 students identified as deserving assistance from the college's Pounds 44,000 emergency access fund, only 149 could be helped last year.

Lewisham has the highest level of youth unemployment in Britain, the inspection report shows. Adult unemployment is 16 per cent compared with 10 per cent for London as a whole. In Deptford, it is 24 per cent. One in four young people are in one-parent families and 22 per cent of the population is black or ethnic minority, including many refugees, directed to the area by Government agencies. The inspectors praise the work of six guidance officers and say Ms Silver provides "strong, imaginative leadership" which "inspires confidence among staff students and governors" and they point to particular strengths in equal opportunities and tutoring policies.

There are improvements needed in teaching, student retention and exam performance still to be had. These, Ms Silver reckons she can cope with. But others - the deeper-seated social problems - need more resources and she fears that the spectre of Crack city is always looming.

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