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Inspectors attack poor results

Managers, governors and exam results are slated in a fiercely critical inspection report on standards at troubled Stoke-on-Trent College.

The Further Education Funding Council inspectors' verdict on Stoke concentrates fire on the management collapse which blew an Pounds 8 million hole in finances.

It pronounces most teaching sound, but makes stinging criticisms of students' achievements, highlighting low numbers of passes and high drop-out rates.

FEFC chief executive Professor David Melville took the rare step of issuing a statement backing the 25,000-student college, which has launched its recovery with the appointment of new principal Graham Moore.

But the report itself, completed after an inspection which ended only in January, reveals a catalogue of management problems, many of which still remain: * The board of governors "has consistently failed to fulfil its duties in a number of key areas".

* Senior managers have a reputation for remoteness, and rarely visit outlying sites, although they were making efforts to improve.

* Strategic planning is very weak.

* There are still serious shortcomings in the management information provided to the corporation and to the college's managers.

* Heads of school have "as yet little experience of or training in financial management and little understanding of funding methodology."

* Controls are "lax" despite the severe financial problems.

The report spells out how Stoke tried to grow, but descended into crisis as huge shortfalls in student numbers went unnoticed.

Ambitious growth plans drawn up by sacked principal Neil Preston were imposed on managers, many of whom regarded targets as unrealistic, according to the report.

But governors also shoulder part of the blame. The report says: "Governors and college managers did not receive reliable and timely management information. Governors failed to investigate fully indications of weaknesses in the college's computerised management information systems."

Also attacked are low passes and staying-on rates, despite severe difficulties in calculating results.

The report says: "Numbers enrolled on some courses are uncertain, as are some success rates." The college was unable to provide information on the achievements of over a quarter of its students. Its results include: * A-level passes at an average grade E.

* Only 35 per cent of GCSE entrants gained C or above, with results well below the national average in all subjects.

* Pass rates of 35 per cent on intermediate vocational courses.

* Only 11 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds passed level 2 NVQs, with 20 per cent of over-18s achieving similar grades.

* A 60 per cent pass rate in advanced vocational courses taken by 16 to 18 year-olds, putting Stoke in the bottom third of colleges. Results have declined since 1995.

* High pass rates at NVQ level 1.

* Good results on secretarial, sports, beauty, building and other courses.

Overall strengths were judged to outweigh weaknesses in 57 per cent of lessons - below the national average. But inspectors praised the college's community programme, and their report includes warm words for teaching in computing, construction, engineering, business, leisure and tourism, and English.

The report says: "On some courses students achieve significant success, but there are also many instances of low achievement. At the time of the inspection there were serious failings in the leadership of the college. The corporation board has been slow to realise the full extent of the college's problems. "

Professor Melville said: "The inspection report makes it clear that the college has many strengths. In particular it shows that despite serious problems at the top of the college in the recent past, its staff are delivering sound courses and further education which is for the most part of good quality.

"The council welcomes the appointment of a new principal. It believes that by vigorously tackling the issues raise in the inspection report he and the governors can succeed in their task of steering (the) college through to a successful future."

Inspectors' key concerns about stoke:

* serious failings in leadership * severe financial problems * failure of board to meet responsibilities * inadequate strategic planning * serious shortcomings in quality of management * poor teaching, learning and achievement * failure to improve quality of teaching * weak self-assessment

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