Britain's worst college: bad management, weird cults and a pounds 5.7m debt

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The Independent Online
AN INQUIRY has been ordered into the future of one of Britain's fastest growing colleges after it received the worst report given by government inspectors.

The report released yesterday on Bilston Community College, in Wolverhampton, is unprecedented in its criticism. Management, governors, quality controls and support for students were all given the worst possible gradings.

The college, which has been criticised in the past for activities ranging from a partnership with a Christian group advocating exorcism to dealings in Russian "champagne", has debts totalling pounds 5.7m and is surviving on bank overdrafts and advance payments from funding officials. The Further Education Funding Council said it was sending in an inquiry team of experts - effectively a "hit squad" - to decide the future of the college. The team's report is due by Easter.

The inspectors' report comes just weeks after the Government announced a crackdown on failing colleges.

Last month, George Mudie, the Education minister, said colleges that did not improve could be closed or their governors sacked.

Mr Mudie said yesterday: "We have made it absolutely clear that we will not tolerate poor performance by colleges."

Inspectors found "no key strengths" in Bilston College's management, governance, quality assurance and support for students. Their report said that poor management had led to a "significant decline" in educational standards. "Much of the teaching is weak and there is poor student retention and achievement in many areas."

It called for the college to tackle "inadequate support for students; weak teaching; poor attendance and low retention; low achievements; inaccurate data on students' performance and inadequate management of the curriculum."

The college expanded from 11,000 students in 1994 to 55,000 in 1997 through a series of courses run under franchise across the country. Managers ploughed ahead with expansion plans despite a pounds 3.5m cut imposed two years ago.

Bilston also set up a web of nine companies and another seven joint ventures, including two job agencies, an import- export business, a film-making company, a garden centre and a publishing house - all part of an ambitious programme to regenerate the local economy. All the ventures are now being wound up. It also entered into an arrangement with some Russian businessmen who had bought quantities of Russian "champagne" and wanted Bilston to "test the market".

Alan Birks, who was brought in as the acting principal in November to turn the college around, said it had "gone off the rails". But he insisted that the college, which now has only 12,000 students, could be saved. He said: "We're going to give priority to local people, which fits in with the Government's agenda. We are going to invest in our premises and create local centres of excellence. We want to try to create a first-class learning experience."

Mr Birks said that he had already started work to bring the college's deficit under control. Some 130 managers have already left the college.

Paul Mackney, general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said: "It's all a case of the emperor's new clothes. People were so caught up with the hype about expansion that they did not see the reality. This was a college which had some brilliant ideas but got carried away with them."