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Sheffield caught in middle of two bids

College and LEA at loggerheads over who will provide post-16 education. Andrew Mourant reports

PLANS for post-16 education in northern Sheffield are in a state of flux as prospective students suddenly find themselves being wooed both by the city's further education college and the local education authority.

Sheffield college is reinventing itself after the financial and management crisis that followed a complicated merger nine years ago. Part of its strategic plan, conducted after nine months consultation and just published, proposes a new sixth-form centre in the north, along the A61 corridor, offering a wide range of A and AS-level subjects.

But now potential sixth-formers are also being chased by the LEA. It wants to build a college in the deprived north east to stem the flow of brighter students who migrate either to the more prosperous south or out of town.

"We have a low staying-on rate and significant opt-out in the north," said Sheffield's director of education Jonathan Crossley-Holland. "We believe a significant factor is the lack of quality post-16 provision. We know that aspiring parents in the area will support us."

A parents' group has begun campaigning for the sixth-form option. The LEA wants it to be an independent college managed and run by five local schools and, says Mr Crossley-Holland, with "significant business and community involvement".

"The alternative, a single college in the north west, will not deliver for local young people," said Nicky Reed, a spokeswoman for the group. "It doesn't allow for the important role education plays in local regeneration. Travel to college would continue to be very difficult. Local concern about the quality of college provision would not be addressed."

Campaigners, who claim widespread local support, say the sixth- form option will provide a "ground-breaking pilot" and could be a beacon for 13-19 education. It would provide role models for young people through close connection with local schools, raising expectations and demand. Opportunities at post-16 level would also make it easier to recruit and retain good teachers.

Emergence of the LEA plan came as Sheffield college was nearing completion of its own review of provision. "It adds a lot of complication," said spokesman Alan Biggin. "In the early stages of consultation, we had no inkling of what the LEA was proposing. We are trying to factor in what the sixth-form college plan means. There's a long way to go and clearly the Learning and Skills Council will have to be involved. Our plan will go before the LSC later this year."

Principal John Taylor, who took over last September, said that Sheffield college's plans for the north, part of a proposed pound;26 million investment in accommodation, resulted from a "detailed analysis of student needs". The college already offers post-16 provision in the north at its Parson Cross centre.

One college insider described the two bids to provide post-16 provision as "a very difficult situation". "There aren't enough students," he said. "The LEA plans could not be financially viable."

The complexities of post-16 provision in Sheffield stem from the 1980s. A tertiary system was introduced, yet some schools in the south and west were allowed to keep sixth forms. Parents scrambled to get into the catchment area, leaving FE colleges with a skewed intake. In the poorer north, college was the only option.

Sheffield, a giant created in 1992 out of six former colleges, struggled amid vacillating government policies on funding. At one time it operated from 108 sites and had severe management information system problems.

Last year the college was castigated by inspectors for low standards of governance and management. It was placed in special measures but is now out of these.

The sixth-form centre in the north is one of three autonomous sites planned across the city as part of a three-year restructuring plan.

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