A giant success that ended in closure

7th July 2000 at 01:00
Once, Bilston College was seen as exemplary. Now its popularity, solvency and identity are all gone. Ngaio Crequer on what went wrong.

IT was labelled one of the most successful colleges in the country, until suddenly it became, according to the Further Education Funding Council, the worst.

Bilston Community College, in the Midlands, was closed last April on the recommendation of a funding council inquiry team, led by its former chief inspector Terry Melia. It then merged, or was effectively taken over by, nearby Wulfrun College, forming the Wolverhampton College.

But Bilston just won't go away. The Friends of Bilston Community College regularly publishes a pamphlet in which it questions the reasons given for closing the college. It contradicts many assertions made by the funding council. It is campaigning for an independent inquiry into the closure. According to David Kyte, founding chair of governors, the funding council had a "deep-rooted dislike for genuine, effective open-access, equal opportunities, community education policies which meant that they would continue with a scorched earth policy and all its inclusive policies".

Keith Wymer, the former principal who took early retirement, is proposing to write a book about the whole saga.

To understand what happened to Bilston is to understand funding policies for the college sector. Between 1993-97, colleges were exhorted to go for growth, in particular to franchise their courses, to provide off-site provision.

Bilston was spectacularly successful, with thousands of students being taught, even if they never saw the insides of the college, because they were on franchise courses. On one famous day, January 27, 1997, David Melville called a halt mid-way through the year, because the Treasury would no longer meet the "demand-led-element" (DLE) commitment. This was a bitter blow to Bilston, which had followed government and FEFC policy in its expansionist ambitions. Some 5,000 students were told their programmes would end.

Throughout the whole spectacle there was a political side. The funding council had been told by the Government that there had to be a "zero tolerance" approach to "failing colleges".

During 1998 the college struggled with its growing problems. It had a serious cashflow imbalance. It borrowed pound;1 million, extending its overdraft to pound;2.6m. In the end, Bilston owed pound;10m.

Nevertheless, governors and senior staff sat down with the FEFC to discuss a recovery plan. They wanted to prove they were acting urgently to corect weaknesses that had been identified.

Between June and December 1998, there were some 40 meetings inside the college to address the problems. The FEFC felt that things would improve if the chief executive took early retirement, and this Keith Wymer duly did.

The funding council agreed to support the college if it wrote a recovery plan, if its budget was audited by accountants Deloitte and Touche, and if it provided monthly management accounts.

The college met all conditions.But then inspection took place the week after more than 200 managers were made redundant. The FEFC refused to alter the timing.

The inspection report was published in March last year. But David Melville, FEFC chief executive, set up an inquiry the month before, having learned that its findings would be critical. He got tough. He wrote to Alan Millington, chair of governors: "Whilst I fully acknowledge the very strong commitment which you, and your vice-chairman have to the college, I am sure that, together with the chairs of the governing body's other committees and other members of the governing body, you will wish to reflect carefully on how you an best contribute to the future of the college."

On February 26, there was a briefing meeting for the governors. In attendance was Geoff Hall, the FEFC's director of funding and strategy. He referred to the inquiry, but said it was recognised that the corporation had already taken decisive action and many of the steps necessary.

According to the notes of that meeting "There were issues of the past such as whistleblowing letters, inquiries etc...but no evidence had been produced of serious malpractice."

The governors agreed to resign, at an appropriate time. They confirmed this at another meeting in March but were anxious there would be no public announcement that they had been removed.

There was a flurry of phone calls during the meeting between the college and the FEFC. There would be no public shaming, governors were assured.

On April 28, 1999, Tessa Blackstone appointed a new governing body for Bilston. She said: "The people of Bilston have been let down badly. The college lost sight of its responsibilities to address the needs of its local community.

"Educational standards were allowed to deteriorate rapidly to the worst in the FE sector." The governing body was being "replaced" and "a small minority could not be allowed to be a blot on the whole sector". The statement was part of a comment on what she saw as incompetence and financial mismanagement in further education colleges.

When Bilston was established, in 1984, its priority was education and training opportunities, mainly for adults previously excluded from the system. Including the word "community" was a conscious decision of Wolverhampton Borough Council.

The college took its responsibilities to ethnic-minority communities very seriously.

Representation of these communities in management has been halved at the new Wolverhampton College.

The FEFC told The TES: "The dissolution of the former Bilston Community College and its successful merger with Wulfrun College to form the new Wolverhampton College has been fully justified." The college was remedying weaknesses identified in the Bilston inspection. There was improved teaching and learning, a sense of purpose and teamwork for staff, support from managers and governors, effective use of public funds, student retention, and realism about the task ahead.

The college was supported by the council, three local MPs and community groups. "The council will continue to work closely with Wolverhampton College to ensure the educational needs of the local communities in Bilston and Wolverhampton are well served."

But the friends of Bilston are unconvinced, and want more answers.

We won't miss you, Focus VI THE DECLINE AND FALL

1993-97 Further Education Funding Council's dash for growth.

January 1997 FEFC responds to Treasury curbs - big cuts in the sector make huge impact on Bilston

March 1998 Bilston gets funding advance from FEFC to ease crisis.

June and December 1998

Corporation and committees meet

40 times to take decisive action.

JulyAugust 1998 Recovery plan


November 1998 Alan Birks becomes new chief executive,

replacing Keith Wymer, who has taken early retirement.

January 11-22 1999 FEFC

inspection. Feedback to

Corporation on January 29.

February 1, 1999 College told to remove most of the senior staff.

February, 1999

Inspection report says the college is the worst in England.

April 1999 - Merger

Tessa Blackstone says that the

governing body is being replaced.

"We see no future for Bilston Community College" says inquiry.

Bilston merges with Wulfrun College.

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