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Prospectus promise of fairer funding;Further education

Ministers reveal role of the Learning and Skills Council. Ngaio Crequer reports

THE GOVERNMENT has signalled its intention to give parity of funding to colleges and school sixth-forms in the Learning and Skills Council prospectus published this week.

It has decided that local education authorities will receive sixth-form funds via the council, alongside colleges. This will eventually lead to convergence of funding, although the document stresses that sixth-forms will not lose money in real terms. The Association of Colleges estimates that the A-level funding gap is now around 35 per cent, with colleges increasingly disadvantaged.

Ministers are also encouraging diversity by lifting the legal bar imposed by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 on the creation of local authority-maintained 16 to 19 colleges. This means local authorities "and other promoters" - which could mean businesses - will be able to propose new institutions. While The Learning and Skills Council will also be able to propose new sixth-form or tertiary colleges.

"These arrangements will put in the hands of local communities options for raising standards and providing the choices and curriculum breadth that young people need," says the prospectus.

The document outlines how the council - with a budget of pound;6 billion for almost six million learners - will work, subject to legislation.

David Gibson, chief executive of the AOC welcomed the prospectus. "We are particularly happy that by putting sixth-form money through the council it will be much easier to plan parity of funding.

"Nobody has ever argued to bring school funding down. We want to force college funds up."

A new inspection strategy willincorporate the "principle of intervention in inverse proportion to success."

Responsibility for all 16 to 19 courses in schools and colleges will rest with the Office for Standards in Education, and a new Adult Learning Inspectorate will be introduced. In addition there will be self-assessment against criteria established by the Learning and Skills Council.

There will be lighter-touch monitoring of high-quality education and training. But the council will fund only those institutions which meet its standards. It will have the power to take immediate action if it finds shortcomings in health, safety or serious financial irregularities.

The council, which will be answerable to ministers, will have 47 local arms to discuss and agree the plans and budgets of individual colleges and training providers.

Staffing for these will vary between 55 and 150 posts, led by executive directors who are likely to be paid between pound;50,000 to pound;80,000 a year.

There will be a direct working relationship between ministers and the chair and chief executive of the national council on "critical issues" and the Secretary of State will set out policy priorities through an annual letter of direction.

In the next few months there will be further papers on funding, the inspection arrangements and local learning partnerships.

But many feel that much more detail has to be provided. There is nothing in the prospectus about individual learning accounts, nor on general financial support for students. There is no mention of tertiary action zones, nor reference to accreditation of colleges. The Learning and Skills Council is expected to be fully operation by April 2001.

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