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Action to avoid the faded posters

More clarity is needed in the planning role of the Learning and Skills Council, argues Michael Austin

Even now, 30 years after his death, you could see fading graffiti on motorway bridges: "Marples must go!" The one-time Secretary of State for Transport, Ernest Marples, the unpopular man who closed much of our railway system and did for the canals as well, thus achieved a sort of immortality.

When I saw a bedraggled poster in a college that is better at teaching students than tidying its notice-boards, I was reminded of the unlamented politician. It read "Hug your local TEC!"

The Training and Enterprise Councils, an idea borrowed from America after it had been shown not to work there, were meant to transform the world of training by placing some power and limited resources in the hands of local business.

They were supposed to "influence" the work of colleges. Like Ernest Marples, TECs are no more, but have also achieved a sort of after-life by re-emerging as the guts of the Learning and Skills Councils.

When the LSC was set up five years ago, shed-loads of staff simply stepped across from the TECs, a meagre handful from the sparsely populated Further Education Funding Council (FEFC).

Many people have since been liposuctioned out in a tummy-tucking effort to develop a lean and fit profile. Some senior FE college managers have been brought in to add a bit of snap to the funding and planning process. And planning is the anvil on which the LSC will be shaped or broken.

If there is a national mismatch between skills and vacancies, between vocational programmes and the needs of the economy, there can be only a limited number of reasons: a) stingy funding, resulting in obsolete facilities; b) teacherstrainers being off the pace and incapable of providing what's wanted; c) a failure of the supply side and the demand side to speak to each other; or d) an incoherent and dysfunctional pattern of provision.

The government would say that it has a) sorted; colleges have been working hard on b); c) and d) are long-standing issues and might be thought to fall to the LSC to solve.

So what does the view from the LSC look like now? A very senior LSC officer, no stranger to the FE system, described the essential task of the LSC as being to "bring about clarity of vocational education and skills training within a strategic context".

It's about time somebody did. We've had planners without funds (remember the Area Manpower Boards), and funders without plans (Sir William Stubbs and Roger McLure of the long-ago FEFC). Colleges have had to plan with a sideways glance at what others were up to but, as an example of local planning, let alone a regional or national strategy, that does not amount to a hill of beans.

One problem is that college governors are under the impression that their terms of reference say that they are meant to decide the direction of their college - what curriculum to offer being a key part of that. Someone should tell them that the world has changed, because the LSC cannot move without treading on their toes.

From the warm security of an LSC office, colleges are seen as the winners and losers that are the inevitable result of a planning process. Where the LSC has been clear and determined, and there are examples in some of our big cities, there have been big changes: departments closed, programmes relocated, staff re-assigned, budgets redeployed.

The language is that of a fair deal for students: good jobs at the end of high-quality courses. For conscientious college principals nothing is more compelling than an argument based on what's best for students - except the same argument with big bucks attached.

So, a lot rides on whether you trust the instincts and the judgements of those in the LSC who call the shots, in particular, whether they understand the delicate relationship between the orderliness of strategic planning and the traditional strength of colleges in responding quickly to new opportunities. How does long-distance loping fit with fast-footed switches of direction?

Principals who now try to resist the interference in the college's sovereignty, or the logic of rational planning, as the LSC would put it, are seen as misguided throwbacks to the abrasive days of the market, snapping away at the hand trying to feed them.

The job of the LSC and its partner providers, colleges and private trainers, would be easier if the strategic context defined by government policy, and to which the LSC officer referred, were clearer.

When local collaborative post-16 arrangements, supported by strategic area reviews, have been painfully constructed, founded on the strengths of existing institutions, an indication from Andrew Adonis, The Beautiful One, that any school that wants a sixth form can have one acts like Paraquat on the tender plant of co-operation.

Encouraging return-to-learn, then cutting adult provision off at the knees, then raising entitlement to free access to level 3 work, halting Individual Learning Accounts, then bringing them back (allegedly) - all this sounds exactly like the make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of planning of which the college sector was accused.

Even the begetter of the LSC, the then Permanent Secretary Michael Bichard, has expressed doubts about how well the system is working. When the LSC was established, the smart money was on a life of seven years, and five have gone.

If the planning role proves too tough for them, many LSC officers must soon be contemplating yet another re-badging exercise. It's a safe bet that, when LSC posters are yellowing on some college noticeboard, and their memos have turned to dust, the colleges will still be around.

Michael Austin is former principal of Accrington and Rossendale college

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