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Industry to lead skills quango

An English learning council and 50 local versions are to be set up by next spring, dominated by commerce and integrating education and training. Ian Nash reports.

EMPLOYERS and consumers will dominate the new pound;5 billion Learning and Skills Council for England unveiled in the post-16 education White Paper Learning to Succeed this week.

Leaders of industry and commerce will form the largest single group on the 15 member council, to be appointed by the Education and Employment Secretary.

David Blunkett will also appoint the heads of the 40 to 50 local learning and skills councils, set-up to act as arms of the national council, to work alongside local learning partnerships.

The super-quango, affecting the learning opportunities of 5 million adults and young people, will subsume all the responsibilities of the Further Education Funding Council, the 76 training and enterprise councils, local authority funded community and adult learning and the work of the National Advisory Council on education and training targets.

A legislative agenda this autumn will put the new structure in place by April 2001 with appointments and transfers of more than 10,000 civil servants and other staff to manage the councils.

The White Paper says that big areas for increased spending directly on education and training could be opened up by slicing away the bureaucracy.

Training and enterprise councils are criticised by ministers for huge waste on administration costs. The biggest offenders, it says, were spending up to 35 per cent of budgets on administration. The most efficient spent 6 per cent.

This compares sharply with the "efficiency" of the Further Education Funding Council, which spent just 1 per cent on bureaucracy.

The White Paper makes it clear that ministers are looking to the FEFC for funding models. This is a fillip for its chief executive, David Melville, who is understood to be a front-runner to lead the learning and skills council for England.

The reforms "will build on the strengths of the current FEFC tarrif system, which has promoted considerable growth in further education at relatively moderate bureaucratic cost," the paper says.

The boundaries for the local learning councils will coincide, as far as possible, with groups of local authorities. Each council would serve a minimum population of 500,000. Borders will be drawn-up by the regional development agencies and government offices, allowing ministers to keep a tight grip on the post-16 reorganisation.

The new sector envisaged by Mr Blunkett is unique, having no parallels in other countries in the industrialised world, though there are similarities with plans for Wales (TES, April 9). The learning and skills council will be responsible for strategic development, funding, management and quality assurance in all post-16 education and training (excluding higher education) in England. As predicted in The TES (May 28), the emphasis is on an integrated policy across the sector, ending the divide between education and training.

Voluntary organisations, which are seen as being at the margins of policies and poorly funded, will have a higher profile and greater opportunity to bid for cash alongside colleges and other big players.

Careers services also face reform as the new English and local councils take responsibility for work-based training for young people, staff development in the workplace and a tranche of information, advice, guidance and support for adults.

The strong role for employers reflects the Prime Minister's desire to see a council representing the consumers of education and skills. The White Paper emphasises that the vast majority of council members will be from employers, people involved in lifelong learning such as local government, the voluntary sector, trade unions and providers of careers advice. The other members will be from the supply side, such as colleges.

The council for England will have two committees, for young people and for adult learning. Each will assess the needs of their group and the labour market trends. The committee's recommendations will determine how the annual pound;5bn budget is spent.

The English and local councils must ensure coherence with schools and the national curriculum, universities and the progression to higher education, and create policies to combat social exclusion, widen participation and improve access, particularly for the disadvantaged.

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