Forget market forces - two colleges in Oldham have learnt that harmony brings advantages. Joe Clancy reports
It is a two-minute walk to Oldham college and it is one that Nick Brown, principal of the neighbouring sixth-form college, regularly makes.
Sitting down to a working lunch with Kath Thomas, his counterpart at the larger general further education college, he compliments her on the sandwiches.
"Much better than ours," he says. "I'll have to come here more often." She smiles in agreement.
A few years ago, this cosy scene appeared impossible when Mr Brown discovered that the management of Oldham college had a secret strategy to close his down and put him out of a job.
"It was a competitive situation where two colleges were covering similar areas of the curriculum," he says. "They were difficult days when colleges were driven by funding, and market forces would drive out the rubbish.
"Partnership wasn't the thing then. Nobody was meant to be collaborating.
It was a case of compete or die."
Eight years on from the moment he discovered documents revealing his neighbour's strategic aim, the situation is remarkably different.
Where there was discord, there is now harmony. And the result is a transformation in post-16 achievement in the old cotton-milling town on the outskirts of Greater Manchester.
Twelve years ago post-16 education in the area was in dire straits. The town had the second poorest post-16 results in England. For years it languished as one of the bottom three local education authorities.
Now it ranks in the top third in post-16 achievement. At Oldham sixth-form college, the A-level pass rate this year reached 98 per cent. Whereas a decade ago it was a net exporter of post-16 students - with more people going out of the borough for FE than coming into it - now it is a net importer.
Both colleges were visited this year by the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate, the joint inspection service for FE, and both received exceptional reports.
Leadership and management were rated outstanding at the sixth-form college and good at the FE college. Both also got a sprinkling of grade one "outstanding" ratings for several curriculum areas.
Playing an important part in the revival is a ground-breaking collaboration between the two which began six years ago.
At that time co-operation between a sixth-form college and a general FE one was rare. Whenever Mr Brown gave details of the partnership at education conferences, there was astonishment.
Kath Thomas is surprised at the revelation about the hostility that existed between the two colleges. She has only been in Oldham since February and had no idea that the rivalry once ran so deep.
Mr Brown says that poor relationships between the two had existed from the moment his sixth-form college was set up 12 years ago to tackle the poor post-16 achievement.The turning point came when he saw those documents detailing the plans for his college's hoped-for demise.
"From that point we started talking to each other, but partnership is a difficult thing. It takes a long time to build trust," he says.
Now the sixth-form college provides the academic route, offering A-levels in 43 subjects, leaving Oldham college free to provide the vocational courses.
There is no competition over courses, and the marketing managers of both colleges work together to attract students.
"What we did was rationalise provision and make sense of who does what," he says.
"We had been doing adult education and other things just to make the books balance. But they are things we don't do now because Oldham college does it better than us. It is not easy. We have to really work at building up trust to our mutual advantage.
"It is liberating not having to spend our time wondering what other institutions are up to. Now we talk about it and are helpful towards each other, though we are capable of having some robust exchanges."
The principals now envisage taking that collaboration one step further, with the two colleges being at the centre of a learning arc for Oldham.
Both colleges are taking a lead in plans to establish a university in the town to expand higher education courses at Oldham college and at the nearby business management centre.
Kath Thomas explains: "One of the problems we have in Oldham is that young people are reluctant, for cultural and financial reasons, to go outside the town for HE.
"It is important to provide that in Oldham so we can continue to support our students, which is a fairly new concept.
"Universities expect people to be individual and independent learners, but some of our students need more support - the type they usually get when they do HE in an FE environment. It can make a fundamental change to the community and the way it interacts."
So, now that collaboration is producing such positive results, is merger the next step?
On that Mr Brown is emphatic. "Merger is not the answer," he says. "We are as different as chalk and cheese. It is not what the town wants."