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We want you if you're not with us;FE Focus

Since going it alone enrolments have tripled and funding has doubled at South Birmingham college. Harvey McGavin reports

South Birmingham College's prospectus urges would-be students to "unleash your potential". The college certainly has - since incorporation it has grown beyond recognition.

Enrolments have tripled to nearly 30,000, it has expanded from four to nine main sites (with more than 100 other access points), funding is up from pound;6 million to pound;12m and the college is improving local job prospects - it now employs 800 full and part-time staff, up by 500 in five years.

Principal Alan Birks recalls the days of local authority control as a time when the college, like so many others then, catered for predominantly engineering and motor vehicle courses. "It was very narrowly focused," he remembers. "We would have contracted rather than expanded if we had relied on that stuff."

Although the college had not struggled for numbers ("whatever else was the case we were never short of students") Birmingham as a whole had a problem with staying-on rates - only 15 per cent of school-leavers were still in education at 18.

"There was no tradition of staying on at school and going to college because there was always work. But the recession came as a big shock and the bottom fell out of the engineering industry."

Paradoxically, unemployment meant a huge potential market for the college. The accessibility of Hall Green, one of its main centres, which sits on a crossroads served by 17 bus routes and a railway station, made it attractive to new students.

Superstores have also spotted its potential - Mr Birks has already turned down two multi-million pound offers for the site.

The influx of new students strengthened the financial base of the college and "enabled us to be more proactive about how we addressed the needs of students - particularly those who hadn't benefited much from the education system up to now".

Mr Birks is a firm believer in education's redemptive power. One intruder who was found on college premises was given a choice - enrol on a course or we call the police. He signed up for a pottery class and recently graduated with a fine art degree. Mr Birks coined a phrase for it: "Trespassers will be enrolled."

Confrontation with lecturers was avoided during the damaging contracts dispute. Staff agreed a contract with management which included a clause practising what they preach - all staff members have to take a course under a scheme of ongoing professional training.

"You can't force staff into doing an excessive workload," he reasons. "Most staff want to grow and develop courses. And I want to facilitate that. But you can't coerce people into being imaginative and innovative. The main thing is to give people their head."

Flexibility has been a byword for the college's expansion as Mr Birks and his staff have attempted to come up with imaginative ways of reaching students. The college now has more than 100 access points at schools, libraries, community centres and the like across the city. One of them, the 524 Centre on a busy road in Sparkhill, looks like a shop - a deliberate attempt to make the college more user-friendly.

Inside a labyrinth of classrooms unfolds, including an open-access computer room - one of two dozen college venues offering free Internet access. The busy balti restaurant next door is also a college canteen - open to the public, extremely tasty and very cheap - which pioneered the national vocational qualification in ethnic cuisine.

"We have tried to take what we do out of the college and into a vocational setting - into the firms and factories." The college has built educational partnerships with most of the big employers in the area from Leyland Daf to Jaguar and Britvic to Cadbury Schweppes.

It has merged with a sixth-form college in the east of the city, rescuing it from closure. It now boasts the biggest trade union education centre in the UK, has created a specialist construction crafts centre and offers nearly 30 degree courses with nearby universities.

South Birmingham has expanded in so many directions so quickly that Alan Birks believes it could become too big. He says the college is succumbing to the dinosaur effect - the beast has grown so large it takes two days for an impact at the tail end to reach the brain. "We were getting to the stage where we might be outgrowing our size so we are in the process of moving into smaller units."

The college is about to start a strategy of internal devolution - moving decision-making closer to the students and lecturers in its main centres. Its strategic plan for the next three years anticipates further rapid change to the FE sector. The colleges that survive will be those that break the mould, and Alan Birks sees more innovation and wider participation as the key.

"We want to be 'a college without walls' and to target people who probably wouldn't come to college."

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