Neighbours lifeline ends closure threat

The first college condemned to close since colleges became independent of local government has been rescued in a remarkable deal with a neighbour.

De La Salle Sixth Form College in Greater Manchester will become a "campus" of Pendleton College, the second fastest-growing college in England. The deal involves

amalgamation rather than the traditional merger or outright takeover and will be achieved without redundancies.

Closure of De La Salle was announced on October 16 after a disastrous inspection report and failure to recruit the students needed to survive. It provides Roman Catholic education for 330 students who were told the college would be closed in July.

Bids to rescue post-16 Catholic education included a proposal from Salford Catholic diocese to open sixth forms in five feeder 11-16 schools, but this will be dropped.

Peter Daley, principal of Pendleton, said: "De La Salle has had a very bad press but it has many positive attributes which will now be resurrected." They included A-level excellence and some unique courses, such as a deal with the Football Association for coaching.

De La Salle trustees have agreed to give Pendleton an initial 40-year lease on the property it owns. Pendleton will control the "De La Salle Campus" and seek cash for urgent refurbishment and expansion. In return, Pendleton will expand its commitment to become a post-16 Roman Catholic provider for Salford. It will work in partnership with the trustees and guarantee them representation on the board of governors.

The deal, which has had Further Education Funding Council approval, took less than a term to secure. Legal hurdles were kept to a minimum by going for amalgamation rather than merger. Also, under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, colleges such as De La Salle with "designated" or voluntary-aided status have no corporations. This made agreement simpler.

It creates a "super" sixth-form college of more than 1,300 full-time students and, Mr Daley believes, the first secular college to guarantee a Roman Catholic education to those who want it.

Pendleton needs room to expand as it has overshot its recruitment targets by more than 300 per cent. The two colleges are on the opposite sides of the street and perfectly placed to share resources. Suggestions that Pendleton grew at the expense of De La Salle were largely dismissed, as the college had run into difficulties over at least three years.

A highly critical inspection report last summer undoubtedly hit enrolments, though some staff bitterly dispute its findings. De La Salle was further rocked by high levels of staff sickness and buildings in such poor repair that the gym roof fell in during inspection week.

When there was clearly no hope of hitting recruitment targets last term, the governors decided to close, scuppering a refurbishment programme. The published inspection result was a further setback. It highlighted serious flaws in governance and management and lack of senior staff with financial and personnel expertise. This area was given the lowest grade (5), while quality assurance gained a 4.

Despite acknowledged areas of excellence, two key curriculum areas - English and foreign languages and maths - were awarded 4. The report said the college failed to act on problems identified two years earlier.

The deal with Pendleton rescues the De La Salle governors from personal liabilities on closure of around o100,000 and is expected to cost just o35,000 more than current total costs. Success under the no-redundancy deal depends on continued rapid expansion which will drive down the average costs of the amalgamated colleges. Mr Daley said: "I am confident that we will achieve it. There is still considerable scope for growth in the area."

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