Takeover turns college around
Inspectors have praised the "outstanding" improvement at a Lancashire college following its controversial merger with an institution more than 160 miles away.
Ofsted vindicated Newcastle College's takeover of Skelmersdale and Ormskirk College, which was judged to be failing in 2006, by giving the merged college outstanding ratings across the board and singling out the handling of the merger for praise.
"In the short time since the merger," its report said, "a climate of high expectation and confidence among the staff and learners has developed. Teachers across sites regularly share good practice, innovative teaching ideas and high quality resources. They set high standards in the classroom, and in return learners enjoy their studies and most meet the college expectation of hard work, application and involvement."
The report brings the total number of colleges and sixth form colleges rated outstanding in all categories to 47 since Ofsted introduced its new inspections in 2006.
Jackie Fisher, principal of Newcastle College, said: "This is a momentous occasion in the college's history. These results are testimony to the effort and commitment shown by everyone at the college. Crucially, our hard work is paying off in high retention and pass rates among students and a reputation for excellence in all areas."
The decision she took in merging with a failing college on the other side of the country was recognised by inspectors, who said the leadership was "inspirational".
"The merger has been handled exceptionally well," said Ofsted. "There have been rapid improvements in the quality of the provision offered at the west Lancashire sites; the image and profile in the area has improved dramatically."
The merger came about when Skelmersdale's governing body issued a rescue plea, attracting interest from Bristol to Northumberland. But the winning bid was Newcastle, which has expanded dramatically in recent years to incorporate much of Carter and Carter, a training firm, and runs education contracts in six prisons and two probation services. Its annual turnover is about pound;150 million.
Beverley Robinson, principal of Skelmersdale, said that, despite the concerns of some, the distance between the merged colleges had actually proved to be an asset,
"We have all the benefits of being part of Newcastle College in leadership and governance, proven systems and shared services," she said. "But we have our own distinct identity, our own distinct college and we can respond to local needs.
"Initially, staff were wary, but they soon recognised the benefits."
She added that Newcastle College's large budget meant the former failing college could invest in staff and improve its buildings.
The aim now is to expand Skelmersdale, which has just 3,500 students compared with Newcastle's 20,000, by tapping into funding from Train to Gain.
Leading article, page 28.