A Cumbria sixth form college rapped over the knuckles for the condition of its finances by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) is hoping a merger will solve its funding problems.

Barrow Sixth Form College was issued with a financial notice to improve this month having been graded as inadequate for financial health in September.

The 900-learner college, rated by Ofsted in May as good, pointed to falling numbers of Year 11 students in local schools — from 959 in 2009 to 747 this year — among the issues it was facing.

It also explained how government funding for 16 and 17-year-olds was 22 per cent lower than 11 to 16-year-olds — and a further 17.5 per cent less for 18-year-olds.

However, it is in talks with Furness College, three miles away, about a possible merger to become “financially strong”.

Mike Phipps, governors’ board chair, said: “Our challenging financial situation is the same as that faced by many colleges across the country as funding to the sixth form sector has been cut, in real terms, year on year since 2010. Funding levels will remain the same for the next five years despite the fact that costs will rise.

“Barrow Sixth Form receives one of the lowest rates of funding per learner of any educational establishment in Cumbria and is not able to reclaim any VAT unlike schools.”

He added: “We are working hard to be proactive to find a solution and are currently in talks with Furness College about a merger.

“A merged college would be financially strong and ensure school leavers have a broad choice of education provision with opportunities to mix academic and vocational training to meet students’ career goals and the needs of our business community.”

The two colleges are expected to feature among wave three area reviews, taking place from April.

But Barrow was told by the EFA to prepare a corporation-approved financial plan by November last year to, according to the notice, “ensure that the college remains in satisfactory financial health through 2015/16 in readiness for the planned structural change at the end of that period”.

An implementation plan, reviewed by Sixth Form College Commissioner Peter Mucklow, is to be handed over by February 19 to the EFA, where a spokesperson said: “We are monitoring Barrow’s progress to ensure students continue to get the best possible education, and the notice will be in place until we are satisfied that effective action has been taken to address our concerns.”

John Butler, governors’ board chair at 3,000-learner Furness College, which was rated as good in April, said the two colleges had already been working together closely and that both boards were “keen” to explore how the relationship could develop to broaden the provision for students ahead of area review.

“This is an excellent opportunity to develop the post-16 curriculum in Furness to ensure that students can choose the best course to enable them to achieve their career aspirations, be that through A-levels, vocational courses or a combination of both,” he said.

“By coming together, the colleges will be in the strongest possible position to serve the needs of young people, adults and employers and to secure the long-term sustainability of education and skills training in the area.”

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