Nottingham is ill-served by its further education institutions. But a mooted radical merger is already causing friction, says Dorothy Lepkowska

Nottingham's colleges may be in for a rocky ride. Plans for a series of mergers and closures are being considered which could result in the creation of England's biggest further education institution.

Spearheading the drive for change is the Nottinghamshire Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which says that the current system is too expensive, causes duplication and has failed to raise standards.

A review carried out last year by the Ben Johnson consultancy discovered a lack of foundation and level 1 courses (for people with basic skills) across Nottingham's four FE colleges, which it said was "surprising" given that GCSE results in the city remain significantly below the national average.

Just 34.3 per cent of Nottingham teenagers achieve the benchmark five or more A* to C grades, compared with a national average of 52.6 per cent, the review found. And 11.1 per cent are leaving school without any qualifications, compared with 5.4 per cent nationally. At the same time, there is too much duplication of courses at level 2 and above (for people with five or more top grades at GCSE).

On the back of the report, the Nottinghamshire LSC has put forward four alternatives for the future of the city's colleges. They range from no change - not a valid option, according to the LSC - to virtually any combination of closures and mergers which would result in the creation of one, two or three colleges serving the city.

While no one disputes the findings, the path to any eventual outcome could be a bumpy one. Further education in the city was restructured four years ago, when four colleges - Clarendon, Basford Hall, Arnold and Carlton - merged to form New College. The merger led to recriminations, threats of legal action and accusations by other principals that Clarendon was engaging in empire-building.

Rob Valentine, the chief executive of the LSC, favours a two-college system, although he insists that the proposals are "in their infancy". He will have his work cut out placating the principals. Some are angry that a merger is being mooted so early when the proposals have not yet been put out to consultation.

"We are still in the process of talking to the colleges to find out what degree of consensus there is on the best form of change in advance of any consultation process," says Valentine. "However, the preferred option of the LSC board is that two colleges would best serve the conurbation, each with a budget of about £35m."

The largest of the Nottingham colleges is New College, with 62,000 students and an annual budget of more than £30m, which serves roughly half of the FE students in the city. The remaining provision is shared between People's, Broxtowe and South Nottingham colleges. (Bilborough, the only sixth form college serving the conurbation, is unlikely to be included in the reforms.)

Some people think that New College will automatically survive because it is the largest. But Valentine disputes that. "How we arrive at the most logical solution is still up for debate," he says. "The only given is that we cannot continue the way we are."

Dame Pat Morgan-Webb, principal of New College, has the most radical vision of how further education in Nottingham should look in the future. She wants to see the creation of a single US-style community college, uniting the four colleges under one administration and chief executive, with campuses across the city.

Each faculty would continue to have its own principal who would be responsible for curriculum and staffing. "This would be a means of focusing more precisely on the needs of the students, and would remove any duplication," says Dame Pat, who was principal of Clarendon at the time of its merger. "It would also mean no closures."

However, she thinks "it's a shame" there is no way it will happen because of a nervousness about the loss of competition.

Just in case she is accused again of trying to expand her empire, she adds: "I have no axe to grind and no agenda. I will have retired long before any of these proposals are implemented."

The LSC's insistence that the proposals are in their early stages has done little to appease those principals who fear for the future of their colleges. John Rudd, of People's College, is annoyed that the discussions began with talk of mergers before other solutions had been examined. Like New College, People's, with its £20m-a-year turnover and 15,000 students, could expect to survive any reorganisation.

But Rudd is unhappy with the way that the review is being organised. Issues such as duplication of courses can be addressed between the individual institutions without the need for closures, he thinks. "The government advice is that we work in partnership to resolve any problems and that all other options are considered before closures come into the equation."

The colleges recognise each other's strengths and weaknesses, and know that they may be competing unnecessarily, Rudd says. He adds: "We have to exhaust other possibilities before we dive straight into the end process. It would be tragic if hostile dissolutions were imposed on any of the colleges. The work we do here is well respected in the community and it would be awful to think that open warfare could be declared towards it in this way."

Broxtowe College, which has a £15m turnover and 14,000 students, feels somewhat removed from the row because of its location five miles from the city centre, but it remains part of the LSC's plans.

Nick Lewis, its principal, says that he is listening to the arguments and believes the two-college model might suit the city best. He is adamantly opposed to the single community college model.

"Merging colleges is known to be a hazardous endeavour," he says. "Experience has shown us there are many difficulties."