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£200m colleges merger proposal

Five colleges could be merged in a £200m shake-up of education in Leeds.

Inner city sixth forms would also close in a bid to offer students a wider variety of courses tailored to fill an expanding skills gap.

Proposals to create a "super college" with 85,000 students have been put together by the city's largest further education centre, Park Lane College.

If agreed, the merger, involving Park Lane, Leeds Thomas Danby, Joseph Priestley College, Leeds College of Building and Leeds College of Technology, could take place as early as September.

"There is a general agreement about the desirability of fewer colleges in Leeds," said Park Lane's principal Tony Longworth.

"Further education funding has been reduced year on year in real terms. We need larger organisations to benefit from economies of scale."

The merger plans have been circulated to other college heads and to the Learning Skills Council (LSC), which funds further education.

"There have been mixed reactions," said Mr Longworth, who retires next summer. "I think we all agree there are problems that need addressing, and some people favour a two-college solution.

"Something has to be done and we now have a window of opportunity that only comes around every 50 years at the most."

Last Friday, Park Lane also announced it plans to merge with Keighley College, which offers mainly vocational courses such as construction and health and beauty to about 9,000 learners.

As present, Park Lane has about 38,500 students. The merger of the five Leeds colleges, to create a "regional core city college" with centres inside and outside the city, would allow college bosses to bid for up to 200m of Government cash to improve buildings.

The merger plans follow a report published in September by the LSC that claimed major changes were needed to tackle a skills shortage in areas such as construction, catering and finance.

A decision on the possible Leeds mergers is being sought for the end of January. If agreed, a new chief executive and governing body would take charge of the "super college" next September.

Ideally, sixth forms in Leeds' 13 inner city schools would merge with the new college by September 2008, although the process, if it takes place, is expected to take longer.

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