MINISTERS have told local education authorities they have a legal right to bid for some of the control over colleges they lost eight years ago.
The local learning and skills councils must give such LEA bids equal consideration alongside others when organising post-16 education and training in their area, the Government has confirmed.
Baroness Blackstone, the education and employment minister, has clarified the position in a letter to Ealing education authority this week. The Department for Education and Employment has confirmed that under the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the council has a right to bid for a substantial role in the running of the failing local tertiary college.
The authority is drafting a radical plan, in partnership with Thames Valley University, to create what would be a US-style community college for the west London borough.
It is the first LEA to seek such influence since 1992, when the Conservatives stripped councils of their powers and made colleges independent corporations.
There is no suggestion of a return to the days when the LEAs were sole employers of college staff. But the Act allows councils to take a key role in deciding what the college will provide for the local community.
A DFEE spokesman said: "This is not about turning back the clock to pre-1992 days. But we are not going to be anti a bid because an LEA made it. The LSC will ensure that it is for the good of the wider community."
The college would remain a separate legal entity, but the council would have influence in the same way as it does over a school with a delegated budget.
Four bids to run Ealing, involving nearby colleges, were being considered by the tertiary college governors as FE Focus went to press. But when their submission goes before the local LSC later this month, a fifth from the LEA, TVU and industry consortium will be considered alongside it.
Ealing council was told by its legal advisers that the 2000 Act could be interpreted as restoring considerable lost powers. Council leaders sought further advice from the DFEE over their right to bid.
In response, Lady Blackstone wrote that it would be inappropriate to comment on the case. But she went on: "I am personally extremely keen that all the options are considered in a transparent and open way, including your authority's proposal."
Details of the consortium bid were still under wraps this week. But Alan Parker, Ealing's director of education, told FE Focus: "This seems the best option in terms of partnership."
The Blackstone letter and Ealing's bid for a greater influence are bound to spur on other councils. Unitary authorities with a strong influence over local partnerships with industry are understood to be interested.
Graham Lane, chair of education for the Local Government Association, predicted a groundswell of LEA-run partnership bids. "The isolation of FE since the 1992 FHE Act was one of the worst things that happened to education. We are not talking about old-style control, but new-style planning powers."