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Majority backing for post-16 overhaul;FE Focus

POLITICAL parties expected to win around 90 per cent of the seats in the Welsh Assembly have endorsed a report calling for a radical shake-up of post-16 education.

The report of the Education and Training Action Group, launched last week by Welsh education minister Peter Hain, recommends abolition of the Further Education Funding Council for Wales and of training and enterprise councils.

The creation of a central council for all post-school non-university education and training will be integral to Labour's post-16 policy. It is confidently seen as foreshadowing similar reforms in England, as revealed in The TES last week.

Both Plaid Cymru, expected to be the second largest party, and the Liberal Democrats endorsed the document, arguing that it reflects well-established thinking in their parties.

Only the Conservatives, attempting to re-establish themselves as a national force after being wiped out in 1997, rejected it.

Cynog Dafis, Plaid Cymru education spokesman, said: "Our education policy document calls for an all-Wales funding body responsible for 16-plus education and training, so we are happy with that. It is important that informal and community bodies and groups like the Workers' Educational Association are fully involved, particularly in disadvantaged areas."

Jenny Randerson, Liberal Democrat spokeswoman, a lecturer at Coleg Hafren, Cardiff, said: "It mirrors a great deal of our policy document. The one thing I feel they haven't made clear is that when they talk about level playing fields, it must be a levelling up, not levelling down. More funds have to be made available, or the colleges will not be capable of doing the job for which they are intended. You can't do lifelong learning on the cheap."

Rod Richards, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, said: "I'm not convinced that they have fully addressed the need to make education and training relevant to employers' needs and those of the economy. There is a fundamental flaw in Peter Hain's talk of eliminating duplication by substituting cooperation for competition - competition is what eliminates inefficiency and subject duplication, as students head for the most relevant courses."

One important issue for the Assembly will be whether to follow the timetable recommended by the action group. The initial consultation document, issued last autumn, suggested that new structures should be put in place next year. Following consultation, the committee agreed that a more gradual process was necessary, with the planned Council for Education and Training in Wales starting as a shadow body, phasing into full responsibility for 16-plus work by 2002.

John Andrews, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council for Wales, which will be absorbed into the new council, points to the need to balance the risk of "planning blight" during the changeover with that of trying to go too fast.

Both the FEFCW and the training and enterprise councils, due to be folded into the Community Consortia for Education and Training, were happy about their likely fates - recognising they should become the most influential elements within the new bodies.

The plan that the CETW should retain the FEFCW's joint secretariat with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales follows the Dearing Report's endorsement of the model. The funding councils were anticipating change even before the ETAG report, with Professor Andrews due to retire next year.

The demise of the TECs may be more controversial. David Jenkins of the Wales TUC expressed mild concern at the launch while Cardiff employer Alan Davies, in the one forcefully dissenting contribution of an efficiently-managed event, worried that they would be replaced by bodies "with a preponderance of academics".

Plaid Cymru is traditionally sceptical about TECs, but Cynog Dafis said that "their ability to act quickly rather than bureaucratically must not be lost".

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