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Strength in numbers

Colleges must work together to defend their autonomy, argues David Gibson.

The Association of Colleges welcomes the changes to post-16 provision embodied in the new Learning and Skills Council and we welcome its agenda: the statutory responsibility to promote lifelong learning; the mission to expand the learning marketplace; the imperative to create a coherent system of education and training; the commitment to simplify funding systems. We also welcome the introduction of an inspectorate that is independent of the funding body.

Many gains. But what about the potential losses? The council comes with 47 local branches, largely staffed by former training and enterprise council personnel, most of whom have limited understanding of the huge contribution that colleges make to the skills agenda or of the leadership shown by colleges in supporting the development of their communities. Some local learning and skills councils have used college consortia to train their staff in what colleges do. Colleges should encourage their local councils to do the same. Training should be continuous and be supported by regular meetings with officers, chairs and boards.

This means that colleges will have to work with neighbouring colleges and the regional association of colleges so that our voices can be heard clearly and cnsistently. Divide and rule is easy to effect - especially as the culture of co-operation is fairly new. The discretion of the 47 local councils is limited, but colleges are used to being part of a central system so we will be comfortable with that. We have also made the most of the "light touch" regime of the past whereby healthy colleges were not subject to detailed control and in which we were free to deliver a 25 per cent growth in numbers between 1995 and 1999, despite constant cuts in funding.

My association believes that further large-scale growth will be hampered where college autonomy is too closely prescribed. We will have to be vigilant about developing an efficient and non-bureaucratic regime - one that does not, for example, replicate the overheads of the training councils.

Certainly, there are some serious warning signals. My association is, for example, strongly opposed to the proposal to allow the national skills council to audit colleges' financial statements; we see this as a serious erosion of our autonomy. Colleges must now work with their regional association of colleges to ensure that the new regime supports us and recognises the enormous contribution we can make to the post-16 sector.

David Gibson

The author is the chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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