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Labour's missing link;FE Focus

The Labour party is keeping its plans for further education under wraps. Neil Munro reads between the lines

Further education will have to wait a little longer to discover how it would fare under a Labour government as the party's new deal for Scottish education does not mention the sector.

The consultation paper Every Child is Special: A Compact for Scotland's Future, which will be presented to this weekend's annual party conference in Edinburgh, concentrates on schools. Sections on "partnership with business and industry" and community education fail to include further education.

Helen Liddell, Labour's spokesperson on Scottish education, said at the launch of the paper last week that she intended to set up a working party to develop policies for further and higher education as part of a separate "lifetime framework for learning". She pledged: "We will talk to everybody, including industry."

Labour's FE inquiry is likely to be overshadowed by Sir Ron Dearing's investigation of higher education throughout the UK, which the Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth has decided will have a Scottish committee to advise it, possibly including FE interests.

The unions' own position on the future management of FE colleges is unclear (though they do favour a return to national bargaining). Mrs Liddell declined to comment on whether the colleges should revert to local authority control.

The balance of view within the party is said to be against that, preferring to beef up boards of management and make them more accountable.

John Sellars, company secretary of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said: "Labour will have enough on its legislative plate without another restructuring of further education which has had many achievements to its credit since incorporation despite the tight financial constraints."

Labour's paper addresses post-16 issues in relation to the upper secondary school. The Government admits the Higher Still proposals for reforming the post-16 curriculum cannot work without involvement from the colleges. The paper says: "It is important that all who use Highers as a measure of competence and quality have confidence in what is proposed."

The missing FE link is made more evident when the document attaches importance to links between school, work and community education which is promised "a new and dynamic role".

The principles behind the Higher Still proposals appear to be endorsed in another consultative paper on the Scottish economy issued by Labour last week. It supports "a new system of education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds which will provide a unified framework for academic and vocational qualifications based on modular courses which allow for the accumulation of credits".

The economic proposals also envisage a shake-up in the structure, approach and accountability of the enterprise company network. But, contrary to advance leaks suggesting otherwise, Labour does not plan to scrap Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise or their local enterprise companies. The paper describes them as "the strategic driving force of economic development" and John McFall, the party's depute spokesman on Scottish affairs, confirmed that training would also continue to be the responsibility of these agencies.

There are no specific proposals for youth training in the economic paper, the party in Scotland simply adopting the youth unemployment strategy outlined in Labour's national document A New Deal for the Under-25s. This would be headed by an under-25s task force drawn from the education and employment services as well as business and community leaders. One of its guiding principles, the Scottish document makes clear, would be that "young people have a responsibility to seek work and to train" and that "a life on permanent benefit should not be an option".

One college depute expressed disappointment that the Lec network was to remain. "The Lecs are mopping up Euro-money. They pontificate without reason. Most are left with large surpluses, are too big and exercise hardly any accountability." He believed the two national enterprise agencies should invite bidders for training or, in the context of an FE and HE planning body, take over direct responsibility for training.

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