Quango faces an uneasy future

Westminster has been growing restless with the Learning and Skills Council. Steve Hook asks if the big-spending giant will endure in its current form

The Learning and Skills Council - with a budget of more than pound;10 billion -is the biggest-spending quango in the UK.

It has achieved this position despite its responsibilities being restricted to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own arrangements for post-16 education cash.

The question is: whose side is the LSC on? Is it the cowering and obedient servant of the Department for Education and Skills or is it a broad-shouldered supporter of further education?

MPs certainly would like some clarification and, as last week's Commons education select committee report showed, there is some doubt about whether this giant organisation is doing its bit as champion for lifelong learning.

The LSC will be sensitive to such doubts being raised in Westminster. Under John Harwood, its first chief executive, it arrived like a superheroic organisation ready to make sense of the muddled world of further education.

Mr Harwood, a local government man who acquired an evangelical zeal about the realities of the business world, was determined to reshape colleges and other providers to make them more responsive to employers' needs.

At his side, Bryan Sanderson, the founding chairman, was the conscience of the LSC. His CV shows not just a business background in oil, private medicine and football, but also experience of overseas charity work.

His lifelong devotion to the needs of the underdog is surely proven by his work as a non-executive director of Sunderland AFC. He was passionate about dealing with the crisis in basic skills which he saw as scandalous neglect of the less well-educated.

The LSC, which took control in 2001, was a classic New Labour invention - the embodiment of the idea that the bottom line needs of business and social justice could go hand in hand.

Harwood and Sanderson's successors - chief executive Mark Haysom, who arrived from the newspaper publishing industry, and chairman Chris Banks, from the world of fizzy drinks - have a harder task.

Regardless of the hype surrounding its launch, any new quango runs into a post-honeymoon phase when its role is brought into question. So whether or not the LSC lives longer than its predecessor - the Further Education Funding Council, which survived for just eight years - will depend on its justifying its existence. Will it continue to develop or will it eventually go rotten at the core and explode like a giant prize-winning marrow?

The select committee's report makes it clear that the LSC is on probation.

The view expressed by MPs is that, while ministers have been doing a good job of raising the profile of further education, the LSC could be more assertive.

Of course, we should not be surprised that MPs think politicians do the best job, but their comments suggest that, where the LSC's reputation is concerned, the rot may already have started.

The Association of Colleges told the committee that its analysis of DfES press releases, in terms of quality and tone, suggested a lack of support by ministers when further education was compared to schools. It told MPs:

"Advocacy is an important issue in all of this and ministers have failed to act in that capacity."

The MPs expressed sympathy for the LSC's reluctance to be have public disagreements with the DfES which pays its bills.

But it added: "Those at the front line do need to have confidence that the LSC is on their side. Mature, constructive challenge need not be at odds with the LSC's role as a Government agency - and we would like to see the LSC develop such an approach more visibly."

The committee heard from Sir Andrew Foster, responsible for the recent review of further education: "It has not always been clear what was the role of the LSC and what was the role of the DfES."

The Association of Learning Providers, representing private training organisations, suggested that the LSC may not have been given the freedom it needed to do its job properly.

Sir Andrew stressed progress has been made in the process of defining where the DfES's responsibilities end and the LSC's begin.

But, like Sir Andrew, MPs have become convinced that simply defining the roles of the two organisations' jobs is not enough. Ultimately, there has to be trust.

The committee's report said: "Practical measures, such as reducing staffing numbers where there are overlapping functions, and the DfES ceding control of certain operational areas to the LSC, are the right way forward."

However, a more mature relationship between the two bodies is clearly not dependent just on the reallocation of responsibilities. It is also dependent, as Sir Andrew said, on creating a greater degree of mutual trust.

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