College axed after report of shame

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Catholic trustees act as inspectors reveal 'serious failings'. Joe Clancy reports

A Catholic residential college is to shut after inspectors uncovered evidence of bullying, intimidation, drug misuse, racist abuse and sexual harassment.

Plater College in Oxford, which for 80 years offered second-chance university access courses to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, will close in July.

Inspectors who spent five days at the college last October were inundated with complaints from staff and students. They were alarmed to discover similar complaints had been made to college managers and governors, but were never investigated.

The archbishops of Westminster, Birmingham, Liverpool and Cardiff - the four trustees of the college - took the closure decision after the Adult Learning Inspectorate published a scathing report on the college.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham said: "I am very struck by both the sadness and the realism of this decision.

"We are looking at the best ways of continuing the Plater tradition as one way of acknowledging the pathfinding work of the college."

Ali described leadership and management as "very weak". The Pounds 50,000-a-year principal, Robert Beckinsale, left in January.

"During the inspection, serious concerns were raised by learners and staff," said Ali. "The nature of these concerns led to urgent discussion with the governors, the trustees, and the funding body, the Learning and Skills Council.

"These issues were thoroughly investigated by the inspectors, who found serious failings with leadership and management."

The inspection report added: "Management of the complaints and disciplinary procedures and processes is poor. A significant number of serious complaints by staff and learners currently remain unresolved by governors."

Plater is one of only six residential colleges in England. It employs more than 30 staff, half of whom are teachers, and receives about pound;1 million in LSC funding.

It has 82 students taking a one-year university access course, the Certificate of Higher Education - equivalent to the first year of a university degree.

About 20 per cent of the intake are people who have had drug and alcohol problems and have been referred by support organisations after rehabilitation.

In the previous year, 94 per cent of the students who completed the course passed the certificate, and about half used it to secure a university place, some at Oxbridge.

Its entrance criteria ask for "no qualifications, no fees, no age too old, no catch". It welcomes people with learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.

The college was founded in 1921 by a Jesuit priest, Father Charles Plater, who sought to provide an education for the socially excluded and the working classes. About 50 per cent of students are Catholic.

The Catholic Education Service carried out its own review of problems at the college before the trustees and governors took the decision to close it on January 29.

Oona Stannard, CES chief executive, said: "To allow Plater to continue at present would be unfair on all involved, staff and students.

"The college did invaluable work in helping disadvantaged Catholics enter university, but it no longer serves the educational needs or mission for which it was established."

David Mason, interim principal appointed to supervise the closure, was not aware of any disciplinary action against students or staff.

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