Closure is a parable for times of trouble
After 70 years quietly providing Roman Catholic education to the young people of Salford, a modest sixth-form college has finally made history.
De La Salle Sixth-Form College in Greater Manchester is to become the first institution in the further education sector to close since colleges went independent in 1992.
Its 330 students will be able to continue their courses until July next year, but those with unfinished studies will then have to transfer elsewhere. The brothers of the De La Salle order based at the site are set to sell up and move elsewhere. And the 40 staff are certain only that, by next summer, their jobs will no longer exist.
The story of De La Salle's demise is complex, combining strands specific to the college and local circumstance along with factors also affecting many others in the sector.
A highly critical inspection report published this summer undoubtedly hit enrolments, though some staff bitterly dispute its findings. De La Salle has also been rocked by damagingly high levels of staff sickness, together with the problem of buildings in such poor repair that the gym roof fell in during an inspection week.
On top of its local difficulties, the college struggled with the problems thrown up by its designated status and small size - ones familiar to dozens of others since incorporation. These factors have prompted fears among some observers that the fate of the college - named after the patron saint of teachers - is not a sad yet isolated case, but a parable for the times.
De La Salle's governors made the decision to close the college six weeks into term, after enrolments had proved low enough to rule out all hope of meeting targets. With tough competition from other neighbouring colleges, it was already facing dwindling rolls, and an inspection report in which two key curriculum areas - English and foreign languages and maths - were awarded grade four proved the final straw.
Inspectors also found serious flaws in governance and management, noting a lack of senior staff with financial and personnel expertise and severe difficulties caused by extended absences through illness. The area was given a grade five, while quality assurance gained a grade four.
A small group of staff, angered by a report they claim is inaccurate and unfair, has issued a point-by-point analysis in an attempt to rebut many of its findings. One former senior staff member - one of 13, including principal John McDermot, to leave De La Salle through redundancy, retirement or resignation in August - shares some reservations over the extent of criticism of teaching quality, but acknowledges that the college had serious problems even before designation.
It failed to act to remedy a catalogue of problems identified at least two years ago, and redundancies needed to reduce a soaring pay bill were not pushed through in time. Too little was done to draw in more students when it was clear numbers were dropping.
Some suggest the college's trustees - the De La Salle teaching order, responsible for appointing the foundation governors who dominate the 19-strong governing body - were not well equipped to cope with the tough new demands of a competitive further education climate, and failed to give managers enough freedom to act.
In the end, governors decided on closure when it became clear the college would not be financially viable for a further year after next July. It is still not known where it will find the cash to pay redundancy for the remaining staff.
Governors blamed the crisis partly on De La Salle's designated status - the character it shared with 19 other mainly Catholic sixth-form colleges and 14 other specialist institutions. The status, given to voluntary-aided colleges under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, means the colleges have no assets against which they can borrow cash to get themselves out of financial trouble, while their governors must accept full personal liability for any deficit. De La Salle has no significant debts, but needed extra cash to make up for FEFC funding penalties after failing to hit recruitment targets. For De La Salle, rocked by other difficulties, designation helped confirm downfall. However, even in flourishing designated colleges beset by the opposite problem of over-subscription, the status presents much-resented difficulties, since the option of borrowing to fund new buildings is not available.
The Further Education Funding Council, which views De La Salle as a special case rather than as a warning signal for the sector, is nevertheless concerned over the difficulties of designation. It has been discussing with the religious foundations and diocesan authorities who are trustees to such colleges the barriers to development caused by lack of assets.
The designated sixth forms have no doubt they are unfairly penalised, and claim concerns raised over the issue when the act was drawn up were largely ignored. John Lipscomb, principal of thriving St Dominic's Sixth-Form College, Harrow, and founder of the Association of Catholic Sixth-Form Colleges, suspects the FEFC is prepared to let small designated colleges fend for themselves while moving to help large general FE colleges out of financial trouble.
"They don't see that the provision of Catholic FE is something they need to worry about," he says, citing the ever-increasing popularity of his own college as evidence of real demand for a faith-based education.
The FEFC, charged with ensuring adequacy and sufficiency in FE provision, is not obliged to ensure universal Catholic post-16 provision, though it has to guarantee that option is maintained where it exists already. In Greater Manchester, home to several other Catholic sixth form colleges, it does not consider the loss of De La Salle will deny places to those who want them. Catholic students made up only just over half the roll at the college last year.
The Salford Catholic diocese, which had no involvement with the college, is investigating the possibility of the city's five Catholic 11-16 schools opening sixth forms.
John Neary, acting De La Salle principal on secondment from Notre Dame Sixth-Form College in Leeds, likens sixth-form colleges to corner shops under threat from larger, more powerful supermarkets. "The small shops close, and suddenly everyone is asking where they've gone when they need a loaf and a pint of milk."
His task now is to manage the college's closure in the best interests of staff and students, though "nuggets of gold" in its teaching will be lost for ever. The FEFC, he believes, has done what it can in support, but ultimately De La Salle has been left on its own.
"I don't want recriminations, but I feel something positive should come out of this. If another college gets into this situation, there should be some support and some means of helping it recover."
COUNTDOWN TO THE FIRST COLLEGE CLOSURE: July 1996: damning inspection report published. Principal steps down and acting vice-principal opts not to renew contract; August: 11 more staff leave through redundancy, retirement and resignation; September 1: acting principal John Neary appointed; September 5: governors decide college cannot continue independently after July 1997 and must merge or close; October: proposals for merger with nearby Loreto RC Sixth-Form College fall through; October 18: students and staff informed college is to close next July. Work starts to ensure all students who need them are found alternative college places next year.