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Fury at college closure

Critics of franchising shake-up say their worst fears are being realised. Martin Whittaker reports

A TRAINING college which won praise from government inspectors for its teaching is being forced to close because of a clampdown on college franchising.

Bond Information Technology College in Wolverhampton trains almost 200 students - many of them with learning difficulties - in computer skills. The small college depends entirely on cash from franchises with Rowley Regis sixth form college. Renewal of the contract would have given it 1,400 students.

But Rowley Regis says it cannot renew its contract under new regulations designed to halt the excesses of colleges such as neighbouring Bilston, which was censured by the Further Education Funding Council for abusing franchise options.

Bond ITC's fate has sent shock waves through hundreds of organisations providing specialist support services to the FE sector. Privately-owned Bond ITC was franchised to deliver computer skills courses specially for Rowley Regis students.

Public-private partnerships involving providers of the quality of Bond ITC are seen as a key to widening participation to include excluded groups, as outlined in the White Paper on post-16 reforms.

College leaders say that it confirms their worst fears that much good work will be killed-off by an overreaction to the actions of a handful of offending colleges.

John Brennan of the Association of Colleges said: "We'd obviously see it as a matter of considerable regret if provision which served a clearly identifiable need was withdrawn because of the way in which the rules have been tightened up."

Funding for Bond ITC ceased last month, though Rowley Regis offered it a six-week reprieve so that 177 of the students could finish their courses.

Peter Smith, principal of Bond ITC, said they had been unfairly tarred with the same brush as Bilston College, which went an estimated pound;11 million into debt by over-expansion through franchising.

He said: "We have never had any association with Bilston College as we considered that there was a question mark over the quality of their management and provision. Now our funding has been chopped because of new funding council rules."

Bond ITC offered one-to-one IT training at its headquarters as well as an outreach programme of training in churches, village halls and even students' homes. Mr Smith said it was fulfilling government aims on widening participation. Nearly half its students came from disadvantaged areas.

The irony is that while Rowley Regis had a damning report from FEFC inspectors - with five grade 4s, four 3s and one 2 - Bond ITC won considerable praise and would have been awarded grade 2 for teaching and the curriculum had it been inspected separately.

"A fortnight after being told this, we were told that all the funding had to be withdrawn. That does gall a bit," said Mr Smith.

Janet Armstrong, assistant principal at Rowley Regis, said that with the FEFC pushing colleges to reduce franchising, they had to make some hard decisions.

"I've been in this post for just over a year now, and when I came to this job over a third of what the college did was franchised activity. Following the advice of the FEFC we've decided to reduce that so it forms a much smaller percentage of what we do.

"The Bond contract alone last year took up more funding units than the whole of our franchise provision will next year. It's very hard, but I cannot afford to use units in that way. And I cannot afford to put the college at risk by having too high a level of franchising activity going on."

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