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Braced to grip planning reins

Mark Jackson looks at regional planning options

Local authorities are banding together throughout England and Wales in pre-election bids to regain a central role in shaping 16-19 education.

London's local authorities have progressed furthest, with an eye to a new-style greater London council, headed by a mayor. They will invite colleges to co-operate in a new body to plan and co-ordinate FE throughout the region.

The Local Government Association, representing all LEAs, confirmed that authorities across the country were drafting plans for regional planning in expectation of a change of government.

The new body, Further Education London Region Services (FELORS), is being set up by the Association of London Government as an independent charity to encourage joint planning on a voluntary basis. But its launch comes on the heels of an ALG report (right) urging a new regional planning model with LEAs in the key role.

Such bodies could provide a ready-made grouping to fill what both Labour and the Liberal Democrats describe in their manifestos as regional planning gaps.

Two-thirds of the London boroughs and Surrey County Council have already signed up for FELORS, which will be based in the City of London's education department.

It will recruit its own staff and begin operating as soon as it gets the go-ahead from the Charity Commissioners.

Colleges will be offered membership at a cost, yet to be fixed, which will be a fraction of the Pounds 2,000 a year local authority subscription. Principals gave the plans a cautious welcome but warned they would resist any moves to return to LEA control.

The ALG, whose education chair, Sheila Knight, heads the new body's shadow board, says that FELORS will fill a gap left by the inability of the Further Education Funding Council to plan overall provision in the colleges and schools.

The new body also expects to work with agencies such as the training and enterprise councils. It has already pledged to secure a better deal for London's colleges, whose funding, the ALG argues, does not reflect the extra cost of operating in the capital.

FELORS will monitor and review provision throughout the region, undertake research, and provide information to colleges and the authorities. It will also concern itself with adult education - badly hit by successive education cuts; the state of the careers service; and the youth service.

Chris Waterman, the ALG's education officer, says FELORS will pay particular attention to special needs provision, a source of increasing concern throughout the 16-19 sector.

Although FELORS will charge for some of its services, there is no prospect of it becoming primarily a revenue-earning enterprise like LASER, says Croydon education director Paul Benians, who is on secondment to the ALG. LASER, the south-east region FE advisory council, went into voluntary liquidation last year after the loss of much of its training business.

FELORS has inherited around Pounds 180,000 of LASER money salvaged from the crash, more than enough to cover its start-up costs.

London college principals gave the new body a guarded welcome. In the East End, Tower Hamlets college principal Annette Zera, said: "It's certainly time something was done about strategic planning, as long as that doesn't just mean going back to what happened in the past. If there are going to be practical arrangements, then we shall certainly want to join."

Noel Otley, principal of Uxbridge college on the capital's western edge, doubted that "pan-London" planning would be relevant to his college, but thought that arrangements covering a 20-mile radius around it could be very valuable.

In the south-eastern borough of Greenwich, Woolwich College principal Geoff Pine said he already had such local planning arrangements as part of a partnership between the local authority and other education and training providers.

"There would obviously be advantages if it could slot into a regional framework of planning as long as we didn't end up having a central bureaucracy trying to take decisions which should be made locally," he said.

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