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Editor's comment

Charles Clarke's announcement this week is about more than cash. What the Secretary of State unveiled at the Learning and Skills Development Agency summer conference was virtually a manifesto for the general election.

Indeed, it makes further education tough territory for Tories in search of new high ground.

But the extra pound;130 million and move to cut back on the time-consuming and costly scrutiny of colleges and training providers is little more than was promised in 2000. Since then, successive reports on bureaucracy, including the latest from Sir Andrew Foster, painstakingly mapped the areas for cost-saving cuts.

The Association of Colleges has to be given credit for forcing ministers'

hands. Its warnings of impending crisis were backed by conclusive evidence.

The cash has come despite repeated calls from adult skills minister Ivan Lewis for colleges to "stop whingeing" about money. So, the relentless campaigning paid off.

To some extent, the decision to come up with new cash was forced on the Government by the colleges' success. Anything less, and ministers would have seen a revolt, not only from colleges but also from parents.

So successful has the 16-19 expansion been that colleges were warning that they would not meet their statutory obligations to find enough places.

There was not even an option of diverting resources from elsewhere.

Colleges, employers and training companies also exceeded targets overall for new apprenticeships and Entry2Employment after doom-and-gloom predictions of failure.

As always with such cash boosts, there are caveats. The most immediate effect will be felt by poorly-performing colleges, where scrutiny will not let up. But at least new measures for improvement will be backed by real support.

There remains, too, the stubborn issue of staff pay and parity with schoolteachers. The gap remains on average 10 per cent, as it was in 2000.

In some colleges the gap is greater than it was four years ago.

The easing of cash problems elsewhere should leave room for creative thinking here. But most of the pound;130m is already allocated to targets set before last autumn when indicative college budgets were higher than they finally proved to be. If sanctions against failing colleges lead to the worsening of staff pay relative to the rest of the sector, this will only cause further demoralisation.

Nevertheless, praise has to be given to Mr Clarke for wresting the money from the Treasury. It is an indication that the Government is putting colleges centre stage. Despite the record levels of spending announced in 2002, further education has still not been given the top political priority that primary, secondary and higher education have enjoyed.

The promises made this week do suggest that the era of lifelong learning has arrived. Let us hope that the priorities in Mr Clarke's five-year strategy are sustained - and fairly funded throughout.

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