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Nine colleges bury hatchet to serve the jobless;FE Focus

Elaine Carlton reports on an effort to reduce competition - and grey hairs - in the West Midlands.

A year ago their relationship was characterised by suspicion and distrust. Today the nine further education colleges of the Black Country are overcoming these feelings to join forces in partnership.

Led by Wolverhampton University, the colleges have united to train unemployed people in the West Midlands under the Government's New Deal.

The colleges have furnished employment services with information about their courses which they in turn can pass to New Deal clients. As a symbol of their co-operation they have instructed the employment services to send new students to whichever college is closest geographically.

Douglas Keith, principal of Sandwell College, admits that before their fledgling friendship, "each college would have wanted to negotiate individually with the employment services. It would have meant more competition for colleges and grey hair for the employment services".

"We have been actively encouraged to compete with each other for so long that when college principals in the Black Country first got together we were all very guarded and suspicious. At the beginning the partnership was very difficult."

The rapprochement between the colleges began last July when they bid jointly for money following Helena Kennedy's report on widening participation in further education.

The colleges are: Bilston, Dudley, Halesowen, King Edward VI, Rowley Regis, Sandwell, Stourbridge, Walsall and Wulfrun.

"All the colleges in the Black Country had been working to widen participation in further education but this was an opportunity to get funding for it so we decided to give it our best shot," said Mr Keith.

"We weren't successful but we were determined to continue working together anyway. Although some elements of competition are desirable, colleges had been spending significant amounts of money fishing in the same pool for the same fish.

"The Government is now encouraging colleges to collaborate and we think our consortium fits in well with the Government's ideas."

The partners took the opportunity to work together on the New Deal. Between them they employed two administrators to handle all the extra paperwork created by the project.

The New Deal began in 12 pathfinder areas in January this year and was launched nationally this month.

During January 6,800 initial interviews took place with potential New Deal clients - 734 of these occurring in the Black Country.

Each person receives intensive advice and guidance for four months. Those who are still unemployed at the end of this period are offered four options, all of which include education and training towards an accredited qualification. This is where the colleges play their part.

Jane Williams, principal of Wulfrun College, said: "The colleges recognised that we had to work together to widen participation and we believe we are fitting in with the Government's wish for collaboration. The consortium is going to use the limited resources it has in the most effective way to reach the greatest number of learners.

"We haven't yet moved to cut costs by working collaboratively but we will be thinking about it."

The colleges are also now considering working together on a huge feasibility study about information technology and learning. They want to look at what IT will make possible in three years time.

The joint organisation of auditing, cleaning and catering is also being considered.

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