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A sip from the poisoned chalice

David Croll looked at his college recruitment figures and his heart sank: "Down 27 per cent in a year." He looked again: "I think these calculations are wrong."

If so, it's probably too late. Budgets were set by the Further Education Funding Council last month - based on data sent in by the colleges. Worse; if there are more students than reckoned, who pays? Does he turn them away or spread the jam more thinly? Does it mean redundancies?

It is the stuff of every college principal's nightmares every summer. But then, Mr Croll was not there when the calculations were made. He has just taken what many call "the ultimate poisoned chalice" in FE: the principalship of Wilmorton Tertiary College, Derby.

"With all that has happened in the last 18 months of diversion, certain basic systems for running a college are not in place," he said.

If the whip needs to be cracked, the soft-spoken, politically Left-leaning 42-year-old at first seems an unlikely candidate for the fray in what will remain Britain's closest-observed college for some time.

Wilmorton College, more than any other, caused the sector to be dragged kicking and screaming into the ethics arena following allegations of mismanagement.

The history of Wilmorton's mismanagement is extensively documented. Andrew Stromberg, the principal, went on extended sick-leave, some governors resigned and the rest were dismissed by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard following an independent inquiry.

The 88-page report from Professor Michael Shattock painted an extraordinary picture of negligence, injustice and an attempted cover-up at a college spending Pounds 10 million of taxpayers' money a year.

Student numbers have undoubtedly dropped, even if 27 per cent is over- estimating it, says David Croll. "The most important reason for it is the drop in public confidence. Every night the Derby Evening Telegraph had a woeful story on the college. It just seemed to run and run."

The answer is not another bout of the thrusting entrepreneurialism that got the college in deep water, he insists. His language is resonant of that of New Labour: "working in collaboration with others", "co-operation in the interests of students, not competition for the sake of institutions". He insists there has been enough stick at Wilmorton, and now is the time for support. He wants closer links with neighbouring schools and FE colleges, the University of Derby and the local city technology college.

If anyone can see where Andrew Stromberg wrong-footed, Mr Croll should. "I have known the guy for years. I worked for him at Wilmorton. He was a genius with the curriculum." But 12 years ago, David moved on to Barnsley College and was involved in the New Training Initiative and then the Youth Training Scheme. After a spell as Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative adviser for the local authority, he returned to Barnsley College to become executive director of corporate strategy.

His abilities in strategic planning and the fact that he knew the psychology of Wilmorton led chair of governors Brian Coxon to say Mr Croll was "the perfect candidate".

A predominant view among staff is that when Andrew Stromberg was lower down the organisation, he was contactable; when he became principal he was remote. Mr Croll's immediate priority is, he says, "to regain the confidence of staff and build on the obvious expertise they have".

High grades are expected in an as yet unpublished FEFC inspection report. The inspectors have spoken of "a caring and supportive" environment. Mr Croll insists that with the shock of Shattock "it should not be forgotten that there were good managers and students producing excellent results. I do not have to pick the college out of the gutter. Many would need a 10-year plan to get where we are."

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