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Looser reins or just a different rider?

Colleges are promised a new era of fairer funding. Overnight, the Learning and Skills Council will turn from aggressive auditor to benign bank manager.

Funding chiefs have pledged to scrap the much-loathed scheme of clawing-back cash from colleges that miss recruitment targets. Detailed spending plans will no longer be required and retrospective penalties will be dropped.

In future, funding chiefs will need only a broad picture of public-sector spending and how individual colleges fit into this. As long as this information is provided, that's all the council will be interested in.

The changes are long overdue. The iniquitous penalty system stems back to the bad old days a decade ago when up to pound;50 million a year was withheld from colleges who failed to impose new casualised contracts on the workforce. At the same time student recruitment was the god of all targets and the policy was enshrined within the Further Education Funding Council policy.

As if to punctuate the point that this is a new era dawning, the details of the new funding arrangements were unveiled a day after John Harwood departed as chief executive of the LSC.

But a big question remains. Will the local learning and skills councils be able to resist imposing their own checks and balances? Two years ago at the Association of Colleges annual conference, Mr Harwood announced the creation of the Bureaucracy Busting Taskforce. A cut of 25 per cent in paperwork would be achieved within the year and a new relationship of trust in FE would prevail.

Colleges have since seen that this is not quite so easily achieved, that too radical a cut in red tape here leads to more unpredicted paperwork overload there. It was exactly what happened in schools following a similar pledge to cut bureaucracy one year earlier.

As John Brennan, AoC chief executive, pointed out this week: "We need to look at the detail and make sure these advantages are not eroded."

To a great extent, the LSC needs to slacken the reins of control. The 800 staffing cuts looming demand this if nothing else does. But if the colleges appear to be cynical in their reaction to the latest promises, that is only reasonable.

Remember, colleges were incorporated 10 years ago. For what? To free them from the constraints of local government controls and bureaucracy, and to help them to respond more speedily to the needs of local learners.

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