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As academies get tagged on to new quango's FE remit, critics ask: is it bound to get in a tangle?

Originally designed to oversee 16-19 education, the Young People's Learning Agency now has a vastly expanded role. Richard Vaughan reports

This Wednesday, Schools Secretary Ed Balls would have been sifting through CVs sent from candidates hoping to land the top job at his latest quango.

He is looking for a chief executive of the Young People's Learning Agency, which - along with the Skills Funding Agency - will replace the beleaguered Learning and Skills Council, accused of leaving thousands of sixth-formers unfunded for the next academic year and scuppering the college rebuilding programme.

Although the agency is not due to come into being until the autumn - subject to the passing of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill - the Department for Children, Schools and Families wants to secure a chief executive as soon as possible.

Initially, it was expected that the lucky recipient of the Pounds 140,000-a-year role would be controlling a Pounds 7 billion budget to oversee the provision of 16-19 education. But in January, the job description underwent a radical change when Jim Knight, schools minister, wrote to every academy head and sponsor informing them the agency would also oversee the country's academies.

Clearly, the department realised that as the academy programme expands - with 80 expected this year and another 100 in 2010 - it would no longer be able to manage them from a single ministerial office.

The move was heavily criticised by the Liberal Democrats, who described it as a "knee-jerk" reaction.

David Laws, their education spokesman, said: "The academies programme is now too big to be run from a ministerial office, but yet another unaccountable body is hardly the right solution."

The Conservatives, on the other hand, believe an independent agency for academies is the right move, but they do not believe the agency is the body to do it.

Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, who was on the scrutiny committee for the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, said handing over academies to the agency was simply an "add on".

"The body was set up to deal with funding for 16 to 19-year-olds; academies cater for 11 to 18-year-olds, and some three to 18s. It doesn't seem to fit. The two areas need staff with completely different skill sets. It's the wrong agency," he said.

Similarly, academy group the Harris Federation of South London Schools supports the establishment of an agency, but is cautious about offering support until it is known how it will interact with academies and local authorities.

One area that needs to be clarified, says the foundation, is the commissioning of sixth forms and how the appeals process will work.

Daniel Moynihan, its chief executive, told the Bill's scrutiny committee last month: "In one local authority, we were told by a different body from the LSC that we could not open sixth forms in two of our academies. It was a particularly poor part of London in terms of the staying-on rate, and the reason we were told this was that it did not fit with the plan.

"Four years later, we have 400 sixth-formers and an outstanding sixth form, but nothing else has changed in the area.

"As in that case, we would want to be sure that we had a right of appeal to the Secretary of State, and that it was clear that we could not necessarily be blocked by whatever the local plan was if it was not an entirely sensible and objective one."

He added: "We have experienced difficulties on other occasions when local authorities have not wanted an academy to open for political reasons and in order to protect underperforming local provision.

"We would want a right of appeal so that someone could look at that, and if we lost it, we lost it. But it is important that it exists."

But the harshest criticism has come from the Independent Academies Association, which sees the agency as a "further example" of the Government reneging on the fundamental premise of academies - their independence.

Mike Butler, chair of the association, wrote to the department - and the press - highlighting how it seemed the Government had slowly but systematically gone back on its academy promises. The establishment of the agency was the final straw, the letter said.

In particular, the association has a problem with the agency overseeing the performance assessment of academies.

Mr Butler, who is also principal of Djanogly City Academy in Nottingham, wrote: "It is with growing dismay that those of us within the academies movement have witnessed the Government changing tack over the past 18 months or so. It appears that with every consultation, each missive and even new legislation from the DCSF, there comes further erosion of the independent status of academies.

"Academy sponsors, chairmen of governors and principals up and down the land are seriously questioning the long-term sustainability of the programme, when their efforts to positively impact on driving up educational standards and progress are being increasingly hampered by requirements to bow to the whims of quangos and to abide by additional regulations."

By taking over the day-to-day running of the academies, this quango effectively becomes a local authority on a national scale. The Local Government Association welcomed the decision, adding it was confident the agency will provide much-needed support to the academies programme.

Les Lawrence, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham and chair of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, believed the agency could play a vital role - but only if it kept to its initial remit.

The signs are ominous. Already the agency's brief has expanded from looking after 16-19 education to overseeing the academies programme. Furthermore, the DCSF said the agency would be "slim line", but with 500 staff the LGA already thinks it is too big.

Councillor Lawrence told The TES: "As it stands, the agency would be operating a much-needed supporting role, and I think its role to look after academies once they've been formed - providing oversight on funding and distribution - is a good one.

"However, we are concerned by the number of staff they will provisionally have. It seems too large for the responsibilities it has been given.

"There is a genuine concern of mission creep. There is a danger that it will take on more responsibility or expand beyond its initial responsibilities and will start to question or place additional barriers in front of local authorities and create more bureaucracy."

He added: "But as long as it keeps a very defined role, it will be the right move."

In areas such as Southwark in south London, which is aiming to turn all of its schools into academies, the YPLA will have a particularly strong foothold.

But Councillor Lawrence said the agency's power will not go unchecked: "Local authorities will have the strategic authority for the planning of education in their area. They will also have responsibility for fulfilling the potential of each young person in their area. So they still have very much control over the strategic side of things."

But there can be little doubt that in establishing the agency, with its capacity as both overseer and funding administrator for 16-19 education and every academy in the country - potentially 400 schools - the Government will be creating a very powerful new agency.

So the person Mr Balls hires as its first chief executive must have an overarching view of academies and the further education sector while being confident enough to hold their own when it comes to the intricacies of how the two function together.

Given these requirements, the pile of CVs on Mr Balls' desk might turn out to be not quite as thick as he would like.

What the new agency does

- It will control a Pounds 7 billion budget and work alongside the Skills Funding Agency, which controls a Pounds 4bn budget. These two agencies replace the Learning and Skills Council.

- In January 2009, its remit - dealing with 16-19 education - expanded to include the day-to-day running of the academies programme.

- The funding and performance management of the country's academies will be transferred to the agency. This will include the calculation and payment of grants, supporting and challenging performance, and the management of "back-office" functions - for example, being a contact point for policy or operational queries.

- The agency's full remit will be determined by the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill which is still progressing through Parliament.

- The Government hopes it will provide a "more personalised service to academies, regardless of their location, and (that it) will benefit from a more detailed understanding of the local context of education services".

- Legal responsibility remains with the Secretary of State.

- It remains to be seen if the agency will gain control over decisions such as commissioning sixth forms.

- It will not be involved in setting up academies, a job that stays with the DCSF.

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