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Shape up or be closed;FE Focus

Ministers have zero tolerance with failing colleges. Ian Nash and Harvey McGavin report from Birmingham

FAILING colleges will be given a year to turn themselves round or face closure, ministers and college funding chiefs warned this week.

George Mudie, lifelong learning minister, instigated a new red card card system of final warnings and "sendings-off" to under-achieving colleges and said that he and the Further Education Funding Council would be "uncompromising" in their efforts to raise college standards.

"We have a clear strategy to end social exclusion in this country and to do that we need colleges to improve their performance. We see colleges as vital partners but they have got to deliver," Mr Mudie said.

The worst offenders were guilty of "gross negligence with public money", he told principals and governors at the FEFC annual conference in Birmingham. He used the platform to launch a programme to match the failing schools initiative and pledged that every measure would be used, short of handing control over to the private sector.

While refusing to name names, he said 30 colleges had exam success rates below 50 per cent and he cited unacceptable retention rates and poor standards of governance and management.

His comments were a veiled warning to colleges such as Bilston, Wolverhampton, and Matthew Boulton, Birmingham, which are to receive the worst college inspection reports to date. Wirral Metropolitan College governors have already been removed.

Options other than closure for failing colleges include the sacking of the governors and intervention by neighbouring colleges with proven records of excellence. Mr Mudie said: "We are not eager to close colleges - the name of the game is getting over to colleges that the world in which they live is a world of partnership. The only reason a college should close should be because it loses its relevance to that agenda."

David Melville, chief executive of the FEFC, said: "Colleges will be given a year after the yellow card to improve. If after that period of time they haven't improved the college could be closed. We are going to be quite ruthless."

However, he pledged more support to help colleges which were struggling to succeed and said there would be considerable new rewards for successful colleges. Those which hit local recruitment targets would be up to 10 per cent better off next year from an additional pound;35 million set aside to help widen access. Cash was capped and would be given on a first-come-first-served basis.

The Birmingham conference was also used to unveil the details of a the new pound;115m Standards Fund. The FEFC will award pound;50,000 grants to help "beacon colleges" publish models of good practice. Such colleges will also be asked to intervene in failing colleges, Jim Donaldson, FEFC chief inspector, said.

Additional funds will be available to training principals and staff. The "accredited colleges" which are likely to be the first wave of "beacon colleges" will be announced in April. These will be given a lighter touch inspections. A new Achievement Fund will also be launched next year to reward colleges which significantly improve student performance.

Mr Mudie called on employers and unions to forge agreements and backed a call from lecturers' union NATFHE for an independent commission to look at standards, training, lecturers' pay and the balance of full-time and part-time staff.

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