Replacement of the skills council is condemned as a pre-emptive electoral move that could put students' learning at risk
Billions of pounds of education funding are being handed to local authorities as an electoral ploy, in spite of the risk to students' education, say college managers.
Peter Pendle, chief executive of the Association for College Management, said the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) was far from perfect, but replacing it with local authority funding for teenagers in FE would be damaging.
At the management union's annual conference in Birmingham, he said the transfer of about pound;7 billion of education cash to local authorities was designed to pre-empt plans by the Conservatives to scrap the skills council.
"It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is happening for political, electoral reasons, to undermine Tory policy at the next election," he said. "That's no way to determine education policy.
"Bill Rammell (further education minister) said in his speech that there has never been a successful organisation that neglected its customers. After the by-election, the words `practise' and `preach' come to mind."
Mr Pendle said the changes had the potential to be damaging for students because local authorities did not have the capacity to handle post-16 funding. Councils are also narrowly focused on their own electorate, so that students crossing borough boundaries are likely to suffer, he said.
Under the new structure, a Skills Funding Agency (SFA) would carry on the work of the LSC in post-19 education, and the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) would oversee local authority funding of studies for teenagers.
Colleges would also have to deal with local councils in sub-regional and regional groupings.
Despite its faults in the past, Mr Pendle said the skills council had improved in recent times; subjecting further education to more reorganisation was wrong.
He added: "It's difficult to see what real benefits to learners the changes will bring. It would be wrong to make such far-reaching changes merely for political expediency."
Mr Pendle criticised the expansion in the number of national bodies with which colleges would have to deal. Sir Andrew Foster said in his FE review three years ago that the system was already overburdened with quangos.
"What about the potential for power struggles between the elements of a very complex structure?" Mr Pendle asked delegates. "Between colleges, between colleges and local authorities, between local authorities at sub- regional level, between the YPLA and the SFA, between the YPLA and Regional Development Agencies, and so on.
"We have said it time after time; what colleges want is one point of contact nationally. If it works in higher education, why can't it work with colleges in further education?"
Putting local authorities rather than a national strategic planning body in control would also encourage the creation of inefficient, small sixth forms, which would offer only a restricted curriculum, he said.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills denied that any party political motivation lay behind the changes, saying: "It's about coherence for young people and adults and employers.
"In higher education, universities have been crying out for a dual support system," she said, referring to the two sources of funding from research councils and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. "FE should be able to cope with a similar set-up. It's always taken funding from a wide variety of sources because of the nature of the courses it provides."
She said the Government would aim to hold on to the expertise of LSC staff in order to help local authorities and the new bodies build the capacity to carry out their roles.