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Colleges prepare to take centre stage;Further Education;News amp; opinion

Leaders across the sector welcome the changes announced in the Queen's Speech, reports Ngaio Crequer

A VIGOROUS defence of colleges' track record will be made next week as they prepare for the radical changes in planning and funding to be made by the Government.

David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, will tell his annual conference that the sector is ready to deliver the Government's proposed transformation of post-16 education and training.

In response to the announcement in the Queen's Speech of a Bill to establish a Learning and Skills Council with a pound;5 billion budget, Mr Gibson will declare: "Make no mistake, the FE sector is gearing itself for change".

The new body will replace the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils. Business representatives will take 40 per cent of the seats on both the national and local bodies.

In his speech Mr Gibson will say that it will be colleges' task to make a success of the new funding arangements by providing the fullest FE participation in the new councils.

He will also say he is proud to defend the track-record of a sector that has been wrongly tarnished by rare failures or weakness. "Only our livestock are inspected more rigorously than our colleges. And we do wish the actual results were better known. We really should be quite proud of them."

He will add that inspectors had discovered as many satisfactory or good FE lessons as in schools, despite getting less money for running equivalent courses.

There were no surprises in the Queen's Speech on Wednesday. The Office for Standards in Education will inspect A-level courses in schools and colleges. But a new Adult Learning Inspectorate will take over responsibility for all 16 to 19 training, and for post-19 education and training outside higher education.

The Bill includes a new Youth Support Service to give more effective education and careers advice, and allows the National Assembly for Wales to establish a new Council for Education and Training.

Following the Queen's Speech, David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, said the Government needed to create a highly skilled workforce, and to nurture a love of learning. "We have listened to the views of business, and of communities. Waste, duplication and unnecessary competiton would be stripped away - the new arrangements will produce substantial savings of at least pound;50m."

Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency, said: "Goodbye FE, hello colleges. Colleges will be centre stage in creating a new learning and skills world. The Government's commitment to ensuring a strong economy must be right: and we welcome the recognition that education is central to achieving that vision.

"There are risks - we must avoid the danger of over-regulation and bureaucracy that could stifle responsiveness and innovation."

Paul Mackney, general secretary of NATFHE, the lecturers' union, said: "Finally education and training will be under the unifying umbrella of the learning and skills councils. It's a chance for a fresh start for accountability. We want to see all stakeholders with the right to be represented on the councils - including the staff that will deliver the goods."

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