AMBITIOUS plans to merge two Southampton colleges have been blocked by the Department for Education in a move which has been branded a lost opportunity.

The proposed amalgamation of Itchen College and City College Southampton has been scrapped after the Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) refused to support the scheme, citing uncertainty surrounding its financial viability.

The decision, which affects more than 6,000 students, has caused anger and disappointment across the city.

Royston Smith, Tory MP for Southampton Itchen, said: “I am very disappointed by the news that the ESFA has been unable to support the merger.

"It presented a great opportunity to bring together two well regarded further education providers in our city.

"I saw this as a crucial opportunity to partner academic and vocational courses, to create a really strong offer for local people.

“I made it clear to ministers that I thought this merger was the right way forward."

Cllr Darren Paffey, the city council's cabinet member for children and learning, added: "We were very supportive of the merger and are deeply disappointed that the government agency has rejected this proposal after so much time and effort put in by all parties."

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Senior staff at the two colleges have voiced similar views.

Sarah Stannard, principal and chief executive of City College Southampton said: “We are extremely frustrated that the proposed merger with Itchen College has been refused.

“However, we are reassured by the knowledge that ESFA has told us they are determined to find a sustainable future for Southampton and that they are committed to working with City College and financially supporting us whilst working towards a positive outcome.

“We and all key stakeholders in the city know that City College’s courses and specialist facilities are vital to the future of the economic health of Southampton.

“City College has worked collaboratively with each of the proposals put forward over the last five years, and we are determined to find a solution that will provide a sustainable future for Further Education in Southampton."

Alex Scott, principal and chief executive of Itchen College, said: “We share City College’s disappointment that the proposal to merge will not be supported.

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"We stepped forward to work with City College to develop a proposal that would secure vocational and technical education in the city.

"While we understand the decision, given the economic uncertainty we all face, we are frustrated that the proposal will not go forward, especially as we were seeking to find a solution for the good of the city."

Plans to merge the two colleges were unveiled a year ago.

In a joint statement issued at the time they said: "Nationally colleges have been encouraged to merge to be as financially efficient as possible and if this were to happen in Southampton it would be in line with the wider national agenda.

"Whatever structure the colleges may take in the future, our number one focus remains to ensure that young people and adult learners in Southampton have the best possible further education provision and opportunities to learn the skills they need to be successful in their chosen careers.”