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More elbow to your power

Unprecedented flexibility and muscle are to be given to the new funding body, writes Julian Gravatt. And it won't be afraid to use them.

Anyone expecting instant changes in the post-16 world after April 1 is in for a disappointment. Staff passes and letterheads may be changing but life will go on as before. As the evenings lengthen, people across England are negotiating training and enterprise council contracts, reviewing their Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) funding allocations and planning next year's courses as if nothing had changed. Head office re-organisations are often like this. Hustle and bustle behind closed doors but no visible impact on anyone else for months.

But don't let the silence from Coventry relax you. If you do, you'll miss the main chance. And the next thing you know, your college, company or community group will be written out of the local plan. Two moves on and you'll be the meat and vegetables in a joint inspection.

The Act gives the council unprecedented powers to plan and fund. Section 4 gives it a duty to promote participation. Section 5 allows it to fund any provider - not just colleges. Section 6 allows it to set specific conditions when handing out the money.

These are much wider powers than the FEFC had and they give the Learning and Skills Council wide elbow room, particularly as sections 96 and 98 place weak limits on the types of courses it can support. The main restraints on the new quango are the need to plan in public (sections 15 and 16) and the need to consult widely with a long list of organisations set out in section 21. First on the list will be the regional development agencies. And with 100 per cent of its money coming from government, the ability of the Secretary of State to attach conditions to grants under section 27 is significant.

The strengthening of the Learning and Skills council is matched by the new force given to an independent inspectorate in sections 52 to 72. The Adult Learning Inspectorate brings together a new voice for adult learning while Ofsted is set to show that it doesn't need a high-profile head to be powerful. And it will reach parts of the education system that previous inspection regimes didn't touch: school sixth forms and the planning of 16-18 provision. For the first time, schedule 7 of the Act creates a procedure for government to iniatiate the closure of inadequate school sixth forms.

Finally, the Act lays some foundations for the future. Sections 5 and 104 give the skills councils wide powers to make grants to individuals. Everythin is in place for a national system of allowances or learning accounts, should government want them. Like the book they make into a movie, the words may be a poor guide to what the actors end up doing. The Act and the consultation papers say what should happen, but the Learning and Skills Council will deal with events as it finds them. The general election might lead to all sorts of unexpected changes, but other events are less predictable.

The Council's first attempt at plotting its future comes in its draft corporate plan. This is the plan required by section 16 of the Act. But it goes beyond legal niceties to state a vision for 2010, which is that young people and adults in England will have "knowledge and productive skills matching the best in the world". This in turn relates to the six objectives from the Secretary of State: participation, achievement, standards, skills, efficiency and equality of opportunity. Then there is the offer of a new approach to national targets.

These targets have been in place throughout the 1990s and have set tough goals for getting young people and adults qualified. The growth money allocated to the Department for Education and Employment in both comprehensive spending reviews was specifically related to delivering these targets. However, as the corporate plan and the National Audit Office have made clear, progress towards the young people's target is slow. Only 75 per cent of 19-year-olds had a level 2 qualification in 2000, compared with a target of 85 per cent. Progress is at the rate of 1 per cent a year.

This slow progress reflects the trouble with the national targets in the 1990s: great ambitions but no clear mechanism to deliver them; an advisory council for targets with no power; split responsibilities between FEFC, training and enterprise councils and local government; institutions working in isolation from each other. But the reform changes all this by creating a new body for the delivery of results. The LSC joins up national and local and creates a clear line of authority for the pound;6 billion budget to deliver goals.

The question for the next few months is how these goals will be converted into targets. In the short term, the LSC will work to interim numbers based on the national targets, but in the longer, the plan holds the prospect of something different if its bottom-up planning process comes up with something better. It's a nice idea and a genuine invitation. But if it works, who'll tell the Treasury?

Julian Gravatt is director of finance at The City Lit, London

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