Northwest FE crisis after Wirral

February 5, 1999

College funding chiefs may fail to meet their statutory obligation to secure "adequate and sufficient" education provision in the northwest region.

Provision in the region is jeopardised by financial crises at Wirral Metropolitan College and at least one other college. A series of quality concerns involve at least three other institutions in the region.

This week the northwest regional committee of the Further Education Funding Council warned that financial trouble and quality fears "could pose a threat to the council's duty to secure sufficient and adequate facilities for further education".

Last week the entire board of governors at Wirral Metropolitan College agreed to resign when threatened with the sack under rarely used powers invested in the education secretary. The FEFC recommended the sackings on the grounds of "mismanagement" and in order to secure adequate and sufficient provision.

But it emerged this week that the most controversial part of the college's plan to recover from a previous Pounds 9 million deficit - the sale of a major campus in the face of mass opposition from the local community - may still go ahead. The departing governors announced this week that an "attractive offer" for the sale of the Carlett Park site had been received.

"Acceptance of this offer ... would mean that well within three years the college will have ensured high-quality education for the people of Wirral," said the outgoing board.

The sale will be the first decision to be made by the new board of governors, who will be in place next week. Principal Jenny Shackleton, who will take early retirement, has said the sale is inevitable.

The FEFC committee said five colleges in the region are financially weak, with the problems at two "posing a threat to the sufficiency and adequacy of provision". It would not name the colleges.

But another northwest institution in trouble is Halton College in Widnes, which has been under investigation for alleged financial irregularities. A report by the FEFC is expected next month, but it has already emerged that the FEFC will claw back funds that had been overpaid to the college, understood to amount to several million pounds.

The Professional Association of Teachers said this week that the threat of 60 redundancies at Halton was "grossly unfair".

Halton also faces lingering questions over the quality of its provision, following a 1997 inspection report that found weak provision in two curriculum areas.

The FEFC regional committee warned that in one area, "the quality of the provision made by the sole provider for the area was of particular concern". The FEFC would not name the institution, but West Cumbria College, in its most recent 1998 inspection report, was found to have "less than satisfactory provision" in five out of 11 inspection areas.

The college's weaknesses were said to outweigh its strengths in the quality of management, governance, quality assurance and student support. Poor provision in science, mathematics and computing was also identified.

Macclesfield College was judged to be less than satisfactory in sciences and in quality assurance.

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