Failing colleges may be taken over

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FAILING COLLEGES could be closed down and reopened with new management under plans being considered by ministers in response to a damning report into one of Britain's largest colleges.

Baroness Blackstone, an Education minister, said she was considering the tough powers after the National Audit Office heavily criticised Halton College in Cheshire. The college had to repay pounds 6.4m in government fees after it was found to have overcharged for courses.

The inquiry criticised trips abroad by the principal, Martin Jenkins, and his deputy, Jenny Dolphin. Auditors found the college had claimed for funding for 60-hour courses that lasted one hour. In other cases, the college claimed funding for Scottish students who are not eligible for grants in England.

Internal audits were unsatisfactory in one in five colleges. Lady Blackstone said: "These disturbing reports show why it is essential that we have a rigorous process of inspection in further education, better accountability and a clear policy to tackle failure.We are determined that such abuses will be driven out of the system, with those who perpetrate them."

The Halton governors accepted responsibility for the problems yesterday, but said: "It remains a matter of very real concern to the board that both independent internal and external audits over a number of years failed to raise any questions of irregularities."