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Delight as TECs leave the at-risk list

Britain's TECs can look forward for the first time in their eight-year history. Jonathan Hunt reports from their conference

LEADERS of Britain's 78 training and enterprise councils left their annual conference at Birmingham last week relieved that TECs appear to have a future.

Their role is currently being assessed by the Government, but a consultative report proposes that TECs should continue for at least another three years.

However, the document is critical of some aspects of TECs' work (See story below). It also makes no mention of mainstream work-based training programmes, regarded as a central issue.

These programmes contribute about 70 per cent of the Pounds 1.3 billion of public money TECs receive, and this money helps to fund more expensive training and TEC community activities.

TECs are to keep their enterprise role despite having to start working with the new regional development agencies from next year. Ministers have stopped these agencies from taking over responsibility for funding TECs for at least three years.

The RDAs are intended to work with TECs on improving competitiveness.

Kim Howells, the lifelong learning minister, said the Government was anxious not to inhibit "the development of fully-fledged RDAs until they are capable of handling a big budget and distributing large sums of money".

That gives TECs three years of guaranteed, funded life - a longer period of certainty than they have enjoyed at any time in the eight years since they were set up.

Jacqui Henderson, the new TECnational chief executive, said: "To have three years to plan, expand, reinforce and evaluate will be helpful. It will enable us to engage in discussions with our partners, giving us a clearer mandate for what we do, and help work out our crucial relationships with RDAs."

But she recognises that TECs can't be complacent and will have to change greatly in that time.

While the report is often critical of TECs, and the ultimate outcome of the review is still uncertain, they have some ministerial support.

Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett said in a video message to the conference: "TECs have a key role to play in meeting the main challenges for our economic future."

Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, assured TECs that they would "continue to have a key role delivering the Government's training and skills programmes - and be in the thick of the battle for some time".

And even Kim Howells, not traditionally known for his support of TECs, said they are often "the only way of finding out what is going on".

Insiders say he has been over-ruled by Mr Blunkett on aspects of the review, but if these reports are true he concealed it well, addressing the conference in friendly terms.

National chairman Sir Garry Johnson said TECs are "a unique demonstration of social partnership, and should be a model for further development in this area".

He pledged his support to helping to realise Prime Minister Tony Blair's vision of social inclusion, and said TECs would consider carefully how they should fit into the new structure of RDAs.

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