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Skills council powers up for full-on changes

There is little sentimentality in public administration. The Learning and Skills Council celebrates its second birthday with a list of jobs handed down to it by its third secretary of state.

The council was designed as a machine with wide powers. The beauty of this for ministers is that they can simply issue new instructions and wait while the council gets on with it.

Former education secretary David Blunkett created the LSC with a wide remit to transform society. His successor Estelle Morris gave it a stronger 14-19 focus. Now Education Secretary Charles Clarke wants it to bring education closer to employers.

So 20034 promises to be a year when the LSC will need a thick skin to implement change in a number of areas. Much of its first two years has been spent sorting out its inheritance from its predecessors and laying the groundwork for the future. Setting up the LSC took longer than expected because people and computer systems were not put in place before April 1 2001. Some local LSCs barely had offices on their first day.

The Government held the LSC to existing targets and required stability.

This gave it no choice but to keep existing systems in place. Change happened at the margin. As a result, the main interaction between local LSCs and colleges has concerned short-term initiatives, projects and bids for more money. The intention is that this should change in 20034.

Mr Clarke listed his expectations in a progress report on the skills strategy which will be published in June 2003. It is part of the Government's plan to raise productivity. The big picture target is to raise the output per head, which is towards American and German levels. The philosophy is that low skills are holding back the UK. The progress report cites several skills gaps, suggesting that the biggest problem is the long tail of adults without qualifications.

Management and mathematical skills are also highlighted, as are various specific shortages known to regional development agencies and sector skills councils. The idea is that a better-skilled workforce will be a more productive one that will create its own demand from employers.

One change which faces FE is the planned reform of vocational qualifications, intended to give employers a bigger stake in the process.

There will be consultation on the proposals in April and May. By June, the LSC will have a new and wider set of targets which will inevitably tie up a larger share of its budget. Public money will be targeted at adults seeking their first level 2 qualification and young people aiming for level 3.

Inevitably, this will mean a withdrawal of funds from "non-target learners". The LSC addresses this issue in a technical note. The paper proposes that the shift in resources could take place over several years via the new Success for All planning framework. Colleges could be encouraged to agree to charge higher fees to non-target adults and not to offer discounts.

The goal of higher fees is a desirable one in itself. It is less clear that colleges can pass on increases to learners in a recession or that they will understand the differentiation by qualification level. The 20 million people who have level 2 qualifications may not understand why an ancient certificate from school or college results in a higher fee on an evening course. Handled badly, this could be an unpopular policy.

Another big change is the Success for All planning framework, which will put the relationship between LSC and colleges on to a more formal basis. A public document will hold colleges accountable for measurable progress in improving student success and employer engagement. Floor targets will be used to set minimum acceptable pass rates.

The trouble with these proposals is the lack of agreed data. Existing systems for collecting data are under serious strain because of the pressures created by funding, audit and the hunger for more information on each learner. Nationally, the LSC is bypassing its official data through market research surveys. Locally, a lot rests on the ability of LSC staff to understand the limitations of the numbers and to make the right judgments.

Strategic area reviews will be an even bigger test. The reviews are intended to kick-start local change by creating a structured approach for planning.

Plans mean nothing if action does not follow but there are great risks in this. Parents and local authority councillors will fight to preserve school sixth-forms. Colleges have become good at lobbying. In the worst case, the LSC will light local bonfires before pulling back in the face of resistance. The whole process may prove the LSC's technical capability while exposing its limited democratic mandate.

Julian Gravatt is finance director at the City Lit, London

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