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Dismantling the future in Leicestershire

ome 30 years ago, I wrote in The Observer about Leicestershire's community colleges, and concluded that, if people wanted some idea of what education might be like in the 21st century, this was the county to visit.

How wrong I was. The climate of the times is against Leicestershire (the county where I was born and educated) which was a pioneer of comprehensives and was noted for its "progressive" primaries. As for the community colleges, I fear for their future.

The idea is simple: schools should serve not just children, but the whole community. Youth work and adult classes should be an integral part of the school's mission. The buildings should be open at weekends and holidays, include bars and other leisure facilities and offer a home to clubs and societies.

It has always sounded to me like common sense. If we want lifelong learning, why not offer it in places with which everybody is familiar? If we have expensive buildings and equipment, why not work them more or less round the clock and round the year?

The 23 Leicestershire colleges (plus 28 community centres, based on primary schools) are successful. For every 1,000 of Leicestershire's adult population, 69 are enrolled in adult education against 50 in the other English counties.

"Community", in this case, is not a meaningless label; people see the colleges as places that belong to them. During the 1981 riots, the area round Leicester's London Road station went up in flames, but the local Moat Community College, like St Paul's during the Blitz, remained unscathed. A baffled chief constable rang Andrew Fairbairn, then the director of education to ask why it had been spared.

Our age does not allow such idiosyncrasies. Schools and local authorities must be tested against criteria determined in London. Money must be parcelled out as Whitehall decrees.

Leicestershire County Council has embarked on a "best value review" of youth and community work. It has issued a document, written in the kind of obfuscatory prose that is always a sure sign that people are up to no good. After a "transition process", there is to be "more coherent provision" with "more efficient communication, administration and personnel procedures". Most ominously, the youth and community staff, though still "responsible for local delivery" (just like your milkman), "will be managed in an area team".

I have only the vaguest idea what all this may mean. So I rely on contacts and on leaflets put out by the colleges. The Leicestershire community colleges are, in effect, being dismantled. The principals and vice-principals will lose their responsibility allowances for community education; they will become just like the heads of, to coin a phrase, any bog-standard comprehensive. The adult and youth staff will be accountable not to their colleges but to one of three area teams. The colleges will not have their own budgets for community work; they will have to bid for money.

This is a Tory council, following guidelines and operating within structures created by the Labour government. We have constructed a political system that is quite incapable of accommodating local innovation. Whitehall runs England as though it were the last of the colonies; and it is perhaps understandable that local authorities clutch to their bosoms what few powers remain to them.

In a foreword to Leicestershire's 1947 plan for its colleges, the council chairman quoted the Greek philosopher Solon: "I grow old learning many things." But the managers of the public sector, I fear, grow old learning nothing.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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