Growth has come despite a huge fall in potential recruits as parts of the the area in Hertfordshire covered by the partnership have been devastated by industrial decline, including that of British Aerospace.
The consortium in Welwyn Garden City has been hailed by local politicians as a model for New Labour thinking. Funding chiefs for colleges and local education authorities will press ministers to consider it as a model when an inspection report on the scheme is published this summer.
David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, is known to be seeking a big push on FE next year. He is seeking a way forward for the sector which would enhance its status, carving out a special role for colleges without undermining parental choice and the role of school sixth forms.
A draft version of the Further Education Funding Council inspectors' report on the partnership between Oaklands College and four Welwyn Garden City schools was seen by The TES this week. The inspectors say: "This consortium has survived incorporation and enables a much wider post-16 curriculum than would otherwise have been possible in any single institution."
In 1987, the five institutions agreed a strategy under which they all gave up considerable autonomy. A timetable was drawn up, sharing out the A-level and later the GNVQ options.
Their aims were to widen choice, develop the expertise of teachers, increase staying-on rates and raise levels of achievement. "Initial barriers to collaboration included suspicion and rivalry and the need for each institution to retain its autonomy," says the draft inspection report.
The appointment of a co-ordinator - Graham Russell from Sir Frederic Osborn School, one of the five - is seen by the inspectors as a key to the success. The Government decision to remove colleges from LEA control in 1993 might have scuppered the consortium.
"But by that time all parties were convinced of the benefits of the consortium and negotiated ways of dealing with incorporated status which avoided the negative effects of aggressive competition."
Timetabling is in half-day blocks and transport is provided by the LEA. The consortium now offers 36 A-level options plus intermediate and advanced GNVQs to 550 students. Staying-on rates (excluding FE) rose "dramatically" from 31 per cent in 1987 to 50 per cent last year, with drop-out rates of less than 16 per cent.
The consortium has become so successful, two schools outside the city have opted in as "associate schools" and students come from as far away as central London and north Stevenage.
Small, unviable sixth forms are avoided. While the FEFC says the average college A-level group size is 11, the Welwyn Garden City consortium averages 15 to 16.
The consortium's directors say they are better placed than most for the next big challenge - funding equality for schools and colleges.