Independence isn't always best

IS big really better than small? Are there advantages in having a single Derby College, as opposed to a strategic alliance between three smaller organisations?

After much consideration, the governors at Broomfield, Mackworth and Wilmorton colleges decided that the benefits of merger easily outweighed all notions of retaining independence. The governors' greatest concern was not to lose touch with the college staff who operate at the front line. While we wish to gain maximum advantage through a larger critical mass, we must never become bureaucratic or over-centralised.

There are a number of actions that we are in control of, which we can begin to implement with our own resources and planning. Others will require a political policy change, which we may be able to influence through debate and lobbying.

So, how will the new college look? Let's begin by considering the school-leavers. The post-16 participation rate for Derby and Derbyshire is lower than the national average. Derby College has a key role to play.

We know that a number of reasons for this low participation rate are outside our immediate control, such as social deprivation, housing and health. There is only so much we can do through marketing to attract students. The answer is to create a new relationship with secondary schools.

The Government's White Paper on the 14-19 curriculum must be taken to the centre of the new college's strategy. We need to ensure that the vast majority of young people either reach, or are well on the way to achieving five GCSEs at A* to C, or a vocational level 2 equivalent, by the time they reach the end of compulsory education. To achieve this, we must work with the schools, making available our vocational expertise and resources to those youngsters who would most benefit.

We must devise strategies that are non-confrontational, through the recognition and celebration of the role of school sixth-forms. At the same time, we must develop a college sixth-form alternative which complements both city and county provision. This establishes a new relationship that finally buries the tertiary re-organisation of the 1980s.

Second, government should give serious consideration to raising the leaving age of compulsory education and training to 19. We forget what a great achievement raising the leaving age from 15 to 16 was in the 1970s. Not only do people now live longer, so can afford to spend more time in compulsory education, but the competitiveness of our country is dependant on raising our skills level.

Third, maintenance loans should be extended to all further education students. We are sending mixed messages in our drive to embed Lifelong Learning as a central pillar of our society. Although the introduction of higher education loans was initially treated with some reservation, they are beginning to open the way and give greater access to learning.

Fourth, we need a radical review of all human resource strategies in colleges. At Wilmorton, we paved the way through the teachers' pay initiative, with the introduction of the "super-teacher", or, to use the correct title, the learning director post. If the Department for Education and Skills was to target further resources, we would be in a position to replace the lecturer post.

Finally, the creation of a national task force for lifelong learning is required. This should be a strategy to bring coherence to all learning routes which are of equal value. The task force would need to consider both provision and learner support and include the replacement of the individual learning accounts scheme. It should look at other countries, and properly combine economic, social and individual returns.

This agenda needs to be considered by representatives of both the private and public sectors.

David Croll is principal of Derby College

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