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Skills switchover 'threat to colleges'

The FE sector faces an unexpected challenge from the 'Learning to Succeed' White Paper, reports Ngaio Crequer

Principals and managers are alarmed that the Government's proposed learning and skills councils will be excessively prescriptive and undermine the independence of colleges.

The White Paper, Learning to Succeed, proposes a national Learning and Skills council, with some 40-50 local arms, responsible for the planning of aroundpound;5 billion of public money and more than 5 million learners.

As the government fleshes out its policy, in preparation for a Bill later this year, it is clear that it wants the local arms to have far more powers and provision than was expected in the sector.

John Hedger, director of operations at the Department for Education and Employment, has responded to questions about the responsibilities of local bodies.

In a letter to chairs of training and enterprise councils, he said the local bodies would be expected to meet the needs of the local economy and community; and in order to ensure these needs are met "negotiate the budgets and plans for individual FE colleges and work-based training providers and thus play the lead role in determining which FE courses and training programmes will be funded and in what volume".

In addition, the councils would "decide how, within nationally- agreed limits, the national funding tariff will be varied locally to give providers clear incentives to meet priority local skill needs; deploy locally-managed budgets for adult and community learning, education-business links, and information, advice and guidance to adults on learning opportunities".

They would also "manage and develop the local provider infrastructure...and drive up quality and standards in all provision".

The colleges fear that this prescriptive list of roles and responsibilities will undermine their autonomy.

John Brennan, director of development at the Association of Colleges, said:

"We are rather surprised at the prescriptive tone of this correspondence. It does not tally with our understanding of the role of local LSCs. We will be taking this up with the department: it is not how we saw things happening.

"We would be very concerned if any system eroded the autonomy of colleges and denied them the opportunity to develop their own missions, respond to local markets and make provision.

"We want local providers to develop in their own way and the LSCs to be limited to co-ordinating all that to ensure that all market needs are met, and to ensure there are no gaps."

"This is really emerging as a burning issue," said Nadine Cartner, education officer of the Association for College Management. "The nature of the funding and planning roles of the new local LSCs is not yet transparent. We would strongly recommend that the new framework should not undermine the independence of colleges to respond to the diverse needs of their communities flexibly and innovatively."

She said that any model whereby a local LSC might prescribe specified numbers on specified learning programmes, at specified levels, would undermine the ability of colleges to respond sensitively to local needs.

There were also other purposes to people's learning that enriched their lives and our collective culture. "It is important that these are not neglected in the drive to address skills shortages."

The department has stressed that the LSCs will not be small or unimportant bodies.

The Government is moving quickly to establish the new structure. The announcement of the local boundaries for the LSC will be made by the end of this month. The launch of the ConneXions strategy, aimed at ensuring far more young people continue in education and training until they are at least 19, will take place in November.

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