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Old money for new college makeover

Morris offers pound;43m from budget leftovers and there's more to come. George Low reports

THE pound;43 million reform package for colleges announced by Education Secretary Estelle Morris this week has been paid for from the leftovers of last year's education budget.

Ms Morris said there would be more to come next month, following Chancellor Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review. But, as predicted, she refused to give any hint of how much.

Her aim was to spark a constructive dialogue with the sector on a four-point strategy aimed at improving teaching in colleges, reforming learning, meeting employers' needs and creating more choice for learners.

Initial reactions to the proposals were mixed. David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said it was much better than had been suggested: "I think she realises there are no simple answers and that partnership and negotiation at local level are the best way forward."

But Damian Green, Tory education spokesman, said: "As is so often the case, today's money is not new. It is just the re-announcement of old money in a way so characteristic of this Government's obsession with spin."

Ms Morris promised a modern agenda for reform over the next few years, while admitting that the past five years had resulted in "drift and lack of mission".

Speaking at the Learning and Skills Council summit meeting, hosted at Lords cricket ground by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, she urged college principals to face up to the "things that have gone wrong" - especially the lack of accountability and the "scramble for cash rather than quality". She set out the four key elements of the strategy.

First, there would be further area reviews of provision leading to the creation of new institutions, sharing out courses and closer links with local businesses. But she avoided any reference to separate post-19 further education colleges.

Second, she wanted an extension of proven teaching methods and e-learning with an overhaul of weak curriculum areas. This would be down to the new standards unit.

Third, there would be better pay and professional development for teachers and, for the first time, the 93,000 college support staff.

Fourth, Ms Morris proposed measures to improve the accountability of principals and private training providers, with new performance targets and more freedom for successful colleges.

She described the pound;43m as a first instalment on what was to come next month. But she refused to say how much would be available for lecturers'

pay. "I do not want to tie my hands early in the planning cycle, but I should have more money and flexibility by the end of the year, and I do recognise that we have created a huge differential with schoolteachers'

pay," she said.

Ms Morris took a tough line, threatening "firm intervention to address failure" and warned that differences in quality were much too great in all types of provider. But she hoped that closures, mergers and the rationalisation of courses could be achieved by local consultation.

"If all else fails, the LSC has powers to intervene and so do I," she reminded them.

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