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'Little islanders' will not resolve the big issues

If the capital and other funding problems are anything to go by, winding up the Learning and Skills Council next March may cause celebrations across the nation's college campuses. But there is no appetite, or budget, for party planning yet - partly because of the size of the financial challenges ahead, and partly due to the uncertainties about what replaces the LSC.

The decision to hand the power to commission and fund all 14-19 education to local authorities (pages 4 and 5), leaves further education facing its biggest upheaval since incorporation. The creation of the Skills Funding Agency, to provide adult learning, only adds to the complexity and uncertainty.

Yet despite the scale of the changes - barely 10 months away - the sector risks sleepwalking into this brave new world.

How many providers and local authorities have thought through the tougher questions posed by the changes? The evidence suggests very few.

This must change. Last week's debate on the 14-19 changes, hosted by the Learning and Skills Network, suggests the imagination and will are there to make this work. Key to this will be a willingness to think laterally and to abandon what Paul Head, of the College of North East London, described as the "little islander" perspective.

If providers set out with the view that this is about defending one's institutional turf, then the new arrangements risk failing many learners. However, creative thinking can lead to interesting conclusions, and colleges may find themselves making uncomfortable decisions, such as giving up significant chunks of provision because other local providers are better placed to deliver it.

But it rubs both ways. Local authorities and their sub-regional planning groups will have to get used to the idea that schools and school sixth forms are not the be-all and end-all of 14-19 education. They must create a level playing field including colleges and private learning providers. They must also avoid turf wars when seeking to commission and deliver effectively the best possible provision.

The first year under the new regime will no doubt see local authorities and the SFA playing out the funding strategies left to them by the LSC. But if colleges and other providers are serious about making these changes successful, they must begin working through the issues now and writing a new rule book as soon as possible.

Alan Thomson, FE Focus Editor


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