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Labour to give regions cash share

The quango in charge of funding further education will have a share of its powers and cash devolved down to regional level under new proposals from Labour.

In its new consultation document on lifetime learning, taking in plans for further, higher and adult education, the party sets out a vision of a regional framework for tertiary education and training.

The proposals include moves to dissipate the centralised power and cash reserve of the Further Education Funding Council, handing a proportion of both to beefed-up FEFC regional committees.

These will be able to distribute the cash to suit local circumstances, and will also have the power to set their own regional education and training targets. The targets, proposed by Labour to bolster progress towards existing national goals, will be designed to remedy local skills shortages or shortfalls.

The devolution of a slice of college funding - the party has yet to determine exactly how much - is part of a Labour move to focus 16 to 19-plus education and training squarely on the regions.

Local education authorities will be given a stronger role at the heart of such a framework, with the right to representation on the nine expanded regional committees. Colleges, business and higher education will also be represented.

Labour sees the committees, whose work will link in with government regional offices and the party's proposed Regional Development Agencies, as "forums for partnership and coordination". They will research labour market developments and analyse LEA plans and the strategic plans of colleges and training and enterprise councils, allowing them to draw up overall regional strategies.

The collaborative framework will offer a positive alternative to the present "quasi-market" which "undermines the coherent provision of learning opportunities", the document claims.

Colleges will also be obliged under Labour to widen the composition of governing bodies to include staff, student and LEA representatives.

The paper also says governing bodies should observe a formal code of conduct, draw up a publicly-available register of interests of members, review membership regularly and establish an open appointments procedure.

Predictably, Labour has avoided detailed commitments on funding post-school education, despite acknowledging the cash difficulties faced by colleges.

In pledging to "find a consensus" on greater consistency of funding between post-16 providers, the party knows it risks running into the same uproar sparked by the Government in its review suggesting colleges were as costly as sixth forms.

However, party sources privately acknowledge anecdotal evidence that schools use cash for pre-16 pupils to subsidise older students, disguising the real cost of sixth-form education.

Labour also commits itself in the document to a detailed review of the FEFC funding methodology, with a pledge to take more account of colleges' differing local needs.

The new paper pledges to "iron out" the wide inconsistencies between LEAs in providing discretionary awards for adults in FE, easing pressure on colleges.

Long-term provision will be subject to review, but sources say short-term changes will lay down new obligations for LEAs.

However, consideration of maintenance grants for students on FE as well as HE courses is being left by the party to Sir Ron Dearing's review, to the disappointment of the lecturers' union, NATFHE. Currently, said shadow education spokesman David Blunkett, the system is a "mish-mash", in which adults studying for FE qualifications are "significantly disadvantaged in the allocation of public resources".

The party wants the review's remit to be extended to include FE student support.

Other proposals are moves towards unifying inspection arrangements for schools and FE, and establishing "coherent assessment of quality" in FE and HE.

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