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May's day in the spotlight

She only mentioned FE twice in her speech, to the Tory conference, but Blunkett's shadow did pledge to decentralise control over colleges. Harvey McGavin reports

THE Learning and Skills Act will leave further education colleges subject to the "Whitehall diktats" of central government, shadow education secretary Theresa May warned this week.

Speaking to the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth, she hinted that a future Tory government would give "freedom" back to colleges by allowing them more control over their budgets. The new Act prescribes that between 85 and 90 per cent of local learning and skills councils budgets will be controlled by the national council.

"FE colleges need support," she said. "They need their freedom. Colleges will be given back freedoms Labour have taken away by changing their governing bodies and threatening them with Whitehall diktats on what courses they can offer."

Ms May also pledged to restore higher levels of business representation on college governing bodies.

She said the New Deal had been "no deal" for the 40,000 who had gone back onto benefit, the 60,000 who had failed to get a sustained unsubsidised job or the 92,000 who had left for unknown destinations. She said instead of finding jobs for 250,000 people as the promised, the scheme had found work for just 13,000.

Her 20-minute speech - which only mentioned FE twice - followed a two-part discussion specifically on schols and universities. She admitted afterwards that FE was "not much talked about" among Conservatives but promised new policies for the sector.

"I think it (the new LSC structure) will lead to great centralisation in decisions about what courses which colleges can offer.

"If you are setting up a structure that only gives local determination to 10 or 15 per cent of the budget then the vast majority of decisions will be from the centre.

Tim Boswell, the shadow minister for further and higher education, told a fringe meeting of the Conservative National Education Society that the party's plans for "free schools" outside local education authority control would mirror the "great liberating move" of incorporating colleges in 1993.

"Moving to free schools is part of that logical progression," he said. Warming to the recurrent theme of the education debate which saw delegates attack excessive bureaucracy and paperwork, he added: "What we have seen in universities and colleges is a resurgence of the centralising system which is fogging them. We need ... control and regulation in a minimum number of areas."

He hinted at "more vocationally relevant" route for children "not just at 16" and said that colleges especially needed to look creatively at pay rates for teachers in areas, such as IT, where they were competing directly with industry for staff. "Current pay scales are not giving us the teachers we want," he said.

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