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Troubled college to curb numbers

Britain's fastest-growing college is to freeze student numbers next year after inspectors found serious flaws in its long-distance teaching network. Handsworth College in Birmingham, which expanded by a record 79 per cent last year - mainly through franchises involving community groups - will hold rolls steady when term starts again in September, writes Lucy Ward.

The freeze is self-imposed, according to college managers, though the Further Education Funding Council also recommended a halt to expansion following an inspection in May.

Handsworth, whose Community College Network was initially lauded as an example of successful innovation in the competitive further education sector, has also revealed its operation will be closely monitored under a new, stricter control system.

Under franchising, field officers recruited tutors to run courses nationwide, turning mosques, community centres and even living rooms into study centres. But checks by inspectors revealed very low attendance on many courses, and others that did not exist.

Details of the tighter measures - to include surprise spot checks on individual classes - emerged as the college this week handed over cheques to tutors who fought a six-month battle to win pay and expenses they claimed they were owed for teaching 60 courses.

The staff, including 27 in Bradford and others in Manchester, London and Milton Keynes, said they began teaching after being recruited last September by field officers employed by Handsworth.

The college withheld payment, saying it had never accredited the courses and insisting the tutors were not given the go-ahead to start work. Managers finally agreed to pay all but "a very few" after securing sufficient registers and student details to reassure auditors the classes took place. The rest will be paid if they provide the necessary documentation.

The turn-round follows an FEFC inspection report detailing a series of problems with the network, which last year ran courses for 5,000 part-time students, mainly from ethnic minorities.

Inspectors found the scheme had praiseworthy aims, but singled out poor teaching and accommodation, lack of quality control and poor communications between tutors, field officers and college managers.

The package of control measures being put in place for next year - combined with the freeze on numbers - should ensure there is no repeat of the difficulties, according to Handsworth's marketing manager Peter Seazell.

All teaching groups, wherever they are in the country, will be allocated one of 30 mentors employed by the college to watch their progress and iron out any problems.

In addition, senior college staff will also check and evaluate the work of the network, both with pre-arranged inspections of groups and with surprise drop-in visits.

The college is confident it is now meeting or exceeding the FEFC's quality control recommendations, said Mr Seazell. After the college's critical inspection report and earlier problems faced by neighbouring Bourneville College with its network, inspectors warned colleges not to overreach themselves in their quest for students. In June, the FEFC launched a working group to oversee operations and provide a guide for good practice.

An FEFC spokeswoman said the effectiveness of the new measures at Handsworth would be gauged by re-inspections.

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