The bubble bursts for 'champagne' college

26th February 1999 at 00:00
THE COLLEGE once known as the most successful in Britain faces closure following a damning report published today by further education inspectors.

The Government's chief funding advisers have taken the unprecedented step of appointing a top-level panel of four senior educationists to devise a "fresh start" for the Bilston Community College in Wolverhampton which has debts of pound;9.5 million.

Sources close to the Further Education Funding Council said: "Whatever they recommend, it will almost certainly involve closure and reopening under a new name. Otherwise the debts will be a millstone round the neck of the college until at least 2015."

Two years ago, the college was aiming to increase student numbers by 150,000 through a unique network of college companies and franchising initiatives to sell courses worldwide.

But the initiative crashed as targets proved wildly optimistic. Business plans, including involvement in the purchase of so-called Russian champagne, were a disaster.

The once top college which in 1994 had average inspection grades of 2, has become the worst in Britain, with four grade 5s, six 4s and three 3s.

The relaunch will be used to restructure post-16 provision in Wolverhampton along the lines envisaged by Education Secretary David Blunkett when he was leader of Sheffield Council. Mr Blunkett saw through the creation of the largest college in Europe but the ties he hoped for with the schools were hampered by Tory government reforms.

The new plan for Wolverhampton is understood to include a merger of Bilston and Wulfrun colleges, with the creation of post-16 centres in the city and a University for Industry centre to attract private-sector investment.

The post-16 reforms would be the most radical since the wave of tertiary reorganisations in the 1980s. Mr Blunkett is said to want the equivalent of an FE action zone which could be a testing area for new ideas.

In the Bilston report inspectors say the management became aware of "the seriousness of its financially weak position early in 1998" but had left it too late.

The quality of service plummeted. Inspectors said:"The college was not able to assess performance, including student retention and achievement rates, using accurate data." Teaching was weak, access to higher education poor and management ineffective, the report said.

A hint of what is planned for Wolverhampton is given by the composition of the rescue team.

It is to be chaired by Terry Melia, former chief inspector for HE and then FE, and now in charge of staff development for colleges. Other members are Anne Sofer, former chief education officer for Tower Hamlets, Rama Nand Lal, chair of governors at Swindon College, and Joe Stanyer from the Department for Education and Employment FE support unit.

Full report FE Focus 29, 31

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