THE merger of two town colleges officially starts today and has been hailed as "an exciting new era for education".

Barrow Sixth Form College has merged with Furness College. The organisation is called Furness College and it has two campuses, Furness College, at Channelside, and Barrow Sixth Form College, in Rating Lane, as they both retain their own sites, names and identities.

Due to falling student numbers the sixth form could not continue to be a standalone college financially so it had become part of Furness College to strengthen education provision in Barrow.

Both campuses have been judged to be good with outstanding features by Ofsted and together as one organisation they say they have an unrivalled subject choice for young learners with a commitment to high-quality provision for the local community, with an offer of A-Levels, vocational study, degrees and professional qualifications.

The organisation eventually plans to offer flexible study programmes for those who want to combine A-Levels with professional qualifications and vocational routes.

Furness College principal and chief executive, Andrew Wren, said education has stepped into an exciting new era from today in a move which has already received endorsement from government, those reviewing post-16 education in the area and both boards of governors.

"The area review team recognised the strength of a merged college to meet educational needs in the area and said the merged college was "robust enough to stand alone".

Mr Wren said: “Today heralds a huge step forward for education in Cumbria as, under a merged college, we can offer an unparalleled choice of high-quality courses to suit all young people, adults and employers. We are committed to providing an excellent educational route to enable young people to achieve their career aspirations. We have come together as two colleges that are both rated good with outstanding features by Ofsted and our combined expertise will be a massive asset as we develop the curriculum even further.

“It speaks volumes that the area review team found our merger to be robust, resilient and a strong platform for the future of education and skills training in the Furness area.”

The review also recommended a joint venture between the county’s colleges and the University of Cumbria to support the delivery of the local enterprise partnership skills plan and working together in areas including joint responses to bidding opportunities. The plan for a merged college received broad support from the public and key stakeholders in a public consultation.

Students will have access to the facilities on both sites so Barrow sixth formers will gain use of the Channelside gym, sport facilities, media filming suites, radio station and other technology on the £42m campus.

Barrow sixth former Chloe Limitsios, 17, who wants to study languages at university, said; "We will have access to more facilities in subjects such as media, which I study. It will very good having better project work and higher quality equipment for filming and editing."

Sol Barrow, 18, a Furness College digital learning designer apprentice, said; "The merger is good for the colleges. I'm excited about it. It will be a good opportunity to work with new people, a wide range of staff and students."

The staff team remains the same. Mr Wren said both colleges have vacancies and it has been jointly recruiting this year and having secondments between the college sites to pre-empt where there is duplication.

The constitution of the board of governors is being reviewed to reflect the breadth of the merged college, including three student posts to represent the higher education, vocational education and academic education it now offers. It will retain experience with four existing governors from the sixth form – including chairman Mike Phipps – likely to move on to the merged college board. The revised board will be in place in early October.

John Butler, chairman of governors, said: “Our new merged college is in a fantastic position to ensure we meet the needs of young people, adults and employers through excellent education and skills training. We have a wealth of experience on the new board and I’m looking forward to the new opportunities working together will bring. I’d like to pay tribute to the staff and governors who have all worked hard to ensure that each decision has been taken with the interests of the students and our communities in mind.”