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Cry freedom for colleges

Task force calls for end to the burden of administration which costs pound;250 million a year. Ian Nash reports.

THE best-performing colleges should only be inspected once every six years, says the bureaucracy- busting team created last autumn to cut the burden of red tape and paperwork.

Radical measures proposed by the task force would give colleges freedom to plan up to three years in advance, without the burden of checks and balances currentlycosting the sector an estimatedpound;250 million a year.

The task force report, published this week, contains more than 30 recommendations and action plans to simplify the plethora of demands for information which have grown, according to the chairman, Sir George Sweeney, principal of Knowsley College, "because of a lack of trust, openness and transparency".

The recommendations focus on a four-year plan to rebuild trust, simplify funding , devolve control to the local councils and colleges, and end penalty systems such as the clawback of cash from colleges which miss recruitment and achievement targets.

A three-stage programme of reforms is recommended (see below) with less-frequent inspections and greater freedom to make long-term plans being granted as colleges reach agreed standards.

Most of the proposed reforms require action from the Learning and Skills Council, which set up the task force a year ago after The TES and the Association of Colleges launched the "Cut Red Tape in Colleges" campaign.

The report shows clearly that the bulk of the problems arise because of the way the LSC works. But, in the council's defence, Sir George said: "The creation of the LSC was a hugely ambitious enterprise, based on bringing coherence to an education and training sector spending pound;7 billion a year. None of us could know fully what it was expected to do."

The sentiments are echoed in the report, which says that the majority of the problems were inherited from the council's overly bureaucratic predecessors: the Further Education Funding Council and training and enterprise councils.

The Government is also criticised for letting red tape and paperwork demands multiply. Ministers are advised to replicate for FE the "star chamber" created to keep administration burdens on schools to a minimum.

The LSC is urged to create an independent panel to monitor progress on the report's recommendations.

This, it insists, must be a high-level team of council officers and college representatives.

But, returning to the problems the LSC itself faces in pushing reforms through, the task force calls on ministers to make the necessary legal changes to encourage wider collaboration between agencies serving all departments, from environment and health to education and employment.

The report also criticises other agencies for imposing unreasonable demands on colleges. The Office for Standards in Education, the Adult Learning Inspectorate and others are taken to task for poor use of data and duplicating demands for much the same information.

However, it acknowledges that progress has been made through the recent "concordat" with inspectors, and it calls for the agreement to be extended to other agencies.

Exam boards and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are criticised for creating undue burdens, demanding too much information on the achievements of learners and imposing too many tests - notably on students on National Vocational Qualification courses.

But there is also strong advice to colleges to help promote a more mature and transparent relationship.

"College leaders, for their part, must promote and demonstrate accountability and openness in their dialogue with the LSC."

Sir George has warned that the changes cannot be achieved overnight and it was quickly evident that, to achieve real change, it was necessary to abandon the LSC pledge to cut bureaucracy by 25 per cent within the year.

Sir George said: "There is a need to move away from the culture of waiting to respond to every government initiative. We need to get on with making the changes we believe are needed."

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