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Silver lining in Bilston;FE Focus

Merger of crisis-hit college precipitates plan to transform FE in Wolverhampton. Harvey McGavin reports

A COLLEGE judged to be the worst in England is to close under ambitious plans to transform further education and training in a large area of the Midlands.

Crisis-riven Bilston, which has debts exceeding pound;12 million, will merge with Wulfrun College to form a "new millennium college" for Wolverhampton. It is the first failing college to suffer such a fate since incorporation six years ago.

The proposals, part of a wholesale reorganisation of the city's post-16 services, represented a "visionary and achievable" solution to the Bilston crisis, according to a report this week from an official inquiry team headed by Terry Melia, chairman of the Further Education Development Agency.

Under the rescue plan, both corporations will be dissolved and a single multi-site college, catering for around 17,000 students, will be established next January. Millennium or Phoenix College are both possible names under discussion.

The inquiry team, appointed by the Further Education Funding Council, considered three options for Bilston - keeping it open, closing it and transferring students or a "Wolverhampton-wide" solution. It makes the following recommendations:

* The creation of a single FE college in Wolverhampton with close working relationships with local and regional partners.

* The establishment of a shadow governing body - with those connected with the collapse of Bilston barred.

* The appointment of an advisory group of three governors or principals experienced in mergers * A major investment from the Government's standards fund to retrain staff and improve accommodation and student support.

The "millennium college" solution was suggested to the inquiry by Viv Wylie, the vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, and Jane Williams, principal of Wulfrun College, who admitted that merger had been under private discussion for months.

She said: "Together we intend to give Wolverhampton the FE service it deserves."

The plan also has the support of the city's chamber of commerce, training and enterprise council and local education authority.

In its development plan the LEA, which has one of the best adult education services in the country, aims to strengthen links with colleges and training providers. It is also to review the function of its small sixth forms which have restricted course choice.

All these initiatives will now be combined under a Wolverhampton-wide arrangement which would stop short of placing all post-16 courses in one building but would see all partners sharing planning resources and information technology. Guidance and counselling services would be provided at a central "learning hub".

Janice Shiner, the FEFC's director of education, said: "These proposals provide a vision for post-16 education and training in Wolverhampton to the benefit of students and the community."

Bilston is to establish a working group to ensure continuity of education for its 10,000 students. The board of governors is to resign within the next fortnight once a transitional body of Wulfrun governors and new representatives of Bilston have been appointed.

Acting principal Alan Birks said: "It is a real tragedy. There has been a human cost not least in the student community which may not have been catered for."

Bilston report, 25

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