Cost of this fiasco more than financial

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
The final chapter in the Bilston Community College story has, apparently, been written - with a secret deal between the Learning and Skills Council's solicitors and Bilston's former auditors. Left unanswered are questions about the educational and financial costs of the college's closure and abuse of power by the erstwhile Further Education Funding Council.

The saga began in 1997 when the FEFC, under pressure from the then Department for Education and Employment, reversed its policy on franchised courses, and slashed Bilston's budget by pound;3.5 million or 20 per cent.

College principal Keith Wymer responded by threatening to take the Council to court. The FEFC was furious. The college was subjected to a series of hostile audits.

When auditors failed to come to the expected conclusion on funding eligibility a confidential letter was sent threatening the use of alternative auditors.

In January 1999, the FEFC inspectors were sent in. Coincidentally they arrived the same week that the college had issued redundancy notices to many key managers as it struggled to balance its budget.

The inspectors reported back in a record time - one week. Acting principal Alan Birks was summoned to Cheylesmore House (the FEFC offices) and told to remove most of the college's senior staff. There were suggestions to Parliament of criminal fraud.

A police investigation was instigated by the FEFC. After two-and-half years the police reported that there was no evidence that any of the college's activities were of a criminal nature.

Sharp questions were asked by the Public Accounts Committee. A civil case for pound;25m was eventually launched by the nascent LSC against the college's external auditors, mainly to try to recoup losses for courses that were allegedly ineligible for funding.

Had the case come to court it would have turned the spotlight on ever-changing and sometimes retrospective FEFC funding policies. But the case has been settled out of court by an undisclosed payment to the LSC and, crucially, without admission of liability by the auditors.

This settlement leaves unanswered questions about the college's closure.

Was, Bilston, a pioneering and successful community college, singled out because it had dared to question FEFC authority?

How much did the college's closure cost? What did seven different investigations into the college's affairs find and how much did they cost?

The educational loss has been huge. Bilston was praised by the FEFC in 1994 for having "a vision to achieve the highest standards in providing open access courses and equal opportunities through partnerships with employers and the community". Thirty per cent of its staff were drawn from minority ethnic communities.

The college was swept away on the high tide of "naming and shaming".

Student numbers slumped and half the staff left. There has followed a desperate attempt to secure the evidence, at any cost, to justify the closure which probably exceeded pound;50m.

No one will say how much two forensic audits and the other five investigations have cost. pound;3m? pound;4m? pound;5m? What is clear now is that never was there so much investigation at such great cost, for so little outcome.

The FEFC paid for most of the Bilston campus to be demolished, to be succeeded by City of Wolverhampton College, as part of a pound;15m capital programme.

What national lessons might be drawn from this sorry saga? First, college governors and managers continue to bear the brunt of the constant changes in policies, priorities, funding mechanisms and structures that have bedevilled the FE sector over the past 10 years.

Second, an unelected quango is never to blame for "failures" arising from policy changes. Still less is the DfES. Colleges are responsible.

Third, despite the rhetoric of openness, there is a culture of obfuscation at the LSC and the DfES. Bilston Community College represented an attempt to break new ground in further education.

It was killed off by an angry and fearful quango which has repeatedly refused to answer legitimate questions about its actions.

Paul Goddard-Patel is the former assistant principal and finance director of Bilston Community College

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