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Rescued by a rival college

In the increasingly competitive world of further education, a Good Samaritan neighbour stands out.

The college which came nearest to closure of any in the further education sector would have failed without emergency aid from a neighbour, its new principal says.

John Rockett, who took the chief executive's chair at Rotherham College of Arts and Technology on August 1, believes managers at the town's sixth-form college played a key role in blocking the first FE bankruptcy.

RCAT, reeling from the loss of 90 academic posts and facing substantial debts, is still not out of the woods, but co-operation has helped stabilise a dire situation.

The partnership - where Thomas Rotherham College managers acted as paid consultants -was hailed by departing Further Education Funding Council chief executive Sir William Stubbs as a model rescue scenario.

TRC was among several local institutions to offer help when the full scale of RCAT's problems emerged in February. RCAT was found to need drastic restructuring to cut top-heavy staff costs.

But, with its principal and chair of governors gone, and virtually its entire senior management team axed, the college was in no state to plan for recovery.

Nigel Briggs, TRC principal, says: "The acting principal was tied up with personnel issues surrounding the redundancies and the college was very short of people with the experience and expertise to produce a recovery plan and a strategic plan that matched it."

After winning approval from both college governing bodies, Mr Briggs, TRC finance director Maurice Patterson and vice principal Peter Roberts set to work.

The TRC corporation was paid by RCAT for the service at a "normal but low consultancy rate", says Mr Rockett. It totalled no more than a few thousand pounds, rather than the tens of thousands charged by consultancy firms.

The TRC troubleshooters found RCAT's figures to be "not wholly credible". College staff faced a steep learning curve to draw up plans which could withstand FEFC scrutiny.

"What we wanted to do was help them devise their plans, not write them for them," said Mr Briggs. "We were leading, setting directions, supporting and looking at problems knowing from a feel for the sector whether they were on the right track."

Mr Rockett describes the TRC assistance as "absolutely instrumental. Had Nigel not stepped in you might have been looking at three to six months before the college simply went under".

During the process, the FEFC was kept informed of developments, and both sides stress its supportive stance. "They listened with interest to what we were discussing over co-operation and had no difficulties with it," Mr Briggs says.

The approach is characteristic of the FEFC, which refuses to intervene with direct advice to colleges, yet maintains control by indicating what is acceptable. Few at the council share their former chief executive's zeal for rescue squads, but in the tough funding situation some form of college self-help cannot but win favour.

However, the FEFC's readiness to allow struggling institutions to limp on when, outside the education world, market forces might well have dragged them under is known to frustrate accountants attempting to bail out seemingly hopeless cases.

RCAT's new principal acknowledges that the co-operative approach owed much to local circumstances. "In south Yorkshire, people are very supportive of their public institutions. There are a number of organisations helping us including the training and enterprise council and the local authority. People in Rotherham will not go elsewhere for their education - it's here or nothing. "

In an increasingly competitive education market, hard-bitten principals might well gasp in disbelief at Mr Briggs' assertion that: "We didn't want to try a take-over bid or to move in on their territory. It seems dreadfully altruistic but we wanted to make sure the place stayed in good shape for Rotherham. "

Traditional co-operation will continue between the colleges, but, with a new management team almost complete, Mr Rockett is now essentially on his own. He says the deficit he feared might run into millions has turned out to be no more than Pounds 700,000.

Despite rumours that the situation remains bleak, he is optimistic. Enrolments are slightly up on last year, staffing levels now compare with others in the sector and the college is concentrating on catching up , its principal said.

But with FE funding prospects gloomy and more colleges in debt than ever before, Mr Rockett - who honed his crisis management skills as a cave rescuer in the pot-holes of the Yorkshire Dales - will need all his resources to meet the challenges ahead.

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