Future is all about power games

Whitehall watcher Mark Corney reports on interesting times ahead in the scramble to reform exams, budgets and learning agencies

The next few months will be exciting enough whatever happens to the Labour leadership.

There is the prospect of a learning and skills bill in the Queen's Speech, a white paper on local communities and elected city mayors, and publication of the final report of the Leitch Review of Britain's future skills needs alongside the Chancellor Gordon Brown's pre-Budget report 2006.

Heady stuff, although no strategic changes are expected in the 14 to 19 policy. The plan is to bed-down existing reforms, especially the lead partner role of local authorities, and changes to GCSEs, A-levels and diplomas.

In higher education, the situation is slightly different. As well as putting into practice combined fee and maintenance loans for full-time students, HE is engaged in a "phoney war" in the build-up to the politically sensitive 2009 funding review. By contrast, adult learning and skills policy is all over the shop and difficult to read. Key areas to look out for include political accountability and planning of the adult Learning and Skills Council budget, adult skills and welfare to work policy, and statutory intervention.

London is the only English region with an elected regional mayor.

Effectively, the deal between Alan Johnson at the Department for Education and Skills and Ruth Kelly at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) informed the London mayor "hands off" 14 to 19 and mainstream HE.

The issue up for discussion was always going to be adult learning and skills, although the mayor's influence has ended up being through a statutory adult skills and jobs plan rather than the transfer of the adult LSC budget in London to his office.

But the Government is also interested in democratically elected city mayors. Forget those currently representing small towns and cities. This is about our big cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield. All eyes are on the forthcoming DCLG white paper and whether it recommends a "statutory" adult skills and employment plan for big cities with elected mayors.

In addition, Ed Balls and John Healey, both Treasury ministers, have called for greater decentralisation of powers to the eight regions outside London.

Strengthening the powers of regional development agencies (RDAs) could go hand in hand with greater accountability to parliament through regional select committees.

Decisions over so-called RDAs mark II will be announced at the time of the 2007 comprehensive spending review in July. But conferring a statutory planning role over adult LSC funding as in London is an obvious option. And then there is the sector dimension.

The Sector Skills Development Agency and sector skills councils are pinning their hopes on the Leitch Review to set out a stronger strategy. One idea doing the rounds is statutory sector skills agreements, which have real purchase over the adult LSC budget.

It is anyone's guess how adult learning and skills will fare under these seemingly competing and contradictory agendas. But the trend is clear.

Adult learning and skills is now viewed as something different from young people. The result is three, almost, separate systems - 14 to 19, HE, and adult learning and skills.

Treating adult learning and skills in this way creates a situation where every institution, democratically elected or otherwise, wants a plan, preferably statutory rather than voluntary, to directly influence the adult LSC budget.

Sadly, this debate has moved the spotlight from the fairer funding issues, not between the whole of FE and HE, but between adult learning and skills and HE, a debate that Labour has been most reluctant to have. The second area to watch is adult skills and welfare to work. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, has asked Lord Leitch to examine how the LSC and Jobcentre Plus can work better together.

Joint targets are on the agenda but there is also the possibility of the LSC having a greater say over New Deal programmes.

And finally, there is the old chestnut of statutory intervention. Alan Johnson has raised the prospect of statutory training levies or a statutory licence to practise in key sectors, and the TUC has called for training to be placed on the bargaining agenda and a statutory right to paid time off for training for adults.

All in all, we can expect exciting and confusing times.

Mark Corney is director of MC Consultancy

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