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Drive on golf left managers in a hole

Inspectors say a Surrey college is underperforming because senior staff have spent too much time building a golf course.

Admittedly Merrist Wood college does run a golfing programme.

And in the light of latest government policy, it could be considered a centre of excellence in golf studies.Surrey's golf industry is bigger than farming with its 100 courses requiring 1,500 green keepers.

But the Office for Satndards in Education said an associated on-site course has taken up too much management time.

"The opening and development of an 18-hole golf course has absorbed a high proportion of management time at the expense of the core business of the college," the report states. "In the financial year 20001, the golf club made a significant loss. At the same time, the recruitment of students was below target and the college did not have adequate control over its expenditure on teaching staff."

Merrist Wood opened in 1945, as an agricultural college. In 1991, it diversified and began offering a golfing programme that prepares students to work as professionals or club managers. In 1997, the college opened a championship-length golf course. The Merrist Wood golf club, with driving range, practice green and clubhouse, is run as a commercial business.

John Riddle, principal of Merrist Wood, admits his staff have been preoccupied with losses at the club. "The company that was operating the course on our behalf was not as effective as we thought it would be, so we replaced it. The interregnum period was when losses were made. It was a rocky period."

He added that college had already highlighted problems in the OFSTED report in self-assessment, and said they were now being dealt with. "The golf club is now making a positive contribution to finances. And, throughout this period, the golf course was a very valuable asset for students," Mr Riddle said.

"Diversifying into commercial enterprise can be a very positive thing," said a spokesperson for the Adult Learning Inspectorate, which conducted the inspection with Ofsted. "It enables students to experience real-world situations. But obviously you have to make sure your priorities are right."

Adi Bloom

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