Task force warns of increased red tape

Number 10 watchdog tells Estelle Morris not to overburden colleges. Ian Nash reports.

Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, has been warned by the Government's own red tape watchdogs she is in danger of imposing "an impossible load" on colleges and training providers.

The warning comes in a report from the Better Regulation Task Force, an independent advisory body based in the Cabinet Office.

They are concerned that measures spelled out in the recent FE discussion document Success for All will backfire - creating more, not less, bureaucracy.

The report also exposes contradictions in thinking between the Department for Education and Skills and Downing Street over the future role of audit and inspection.

Chancellor Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review called for tough new targets to back a pound;1.2 billion increase in education spending. Ms Morris reinforced this in a carrot-and-stick message for successful and failing colleges.

But the message from Number 10 warns against imposing intolerable regulatory burdens in reaction to the "minority" of colleges which were "poor achievers".

The task force report says it welcomes measures by Ms Morris to clarify accountability and cut the excessive bureaucracy of the funding regime, but adds: "However, we are concerned that the work underway to develop these new measures may result in an impossible load on the learning provider.

"There will no doubt be strong justification for each new measure, but the overall burden must be assessed before the new performance regime is introduced."

The report also notes that the creation of the Learning and Skills Council and 47 local branches was meant to rationalise the 73 funding strands. "However, we found little sign that this was happening."

Such concerns are reinforced by college management groups who told FE Focus this week that paperwork was "a shambles" and money was not getting to the right people.

A survey by the national Association for Management of Student Services shows that members feel more overwhelmed than ever by bureaucracy. Finance directors also said the delays in advice from the LSC on financial returns had left colleges powerless to draw up essential strategic plans.

The general message is that there has been no reduction in red tape since the creation of the college bureaucracy-busting task force in January, led by Sir George Sweeney. This was created after the Cut Red Tape in Colleges campaign by The TES and Association of Colleges last autumn led to a pledge from the LSC to slash paperwork by a quarter.

David Gibson, chief executive of the AOC, said: "The report encapsulates in a few key paragraphs colleges' bureaucracy problems and their solutions. We have sent it to all our members as guidance to consider in their local relationships and negotiations. We will also be pressing DFES and the LSC to adhere to its recommendations."

The No 10 task force has been in discussion with Sir George Sweeney's group over reforms. But in its report, the Cabinet Office team warns: "(Our) recommendations to reduce bureaucracy on headteachers were effective. Yet heads told us that the space freed up by our 'bureaucracy-busting' had been filled by new burdens.

"It would be unfortunate if George Sweeney and one part of the department were successful at reducing burdens, only for the LSC and another part of the department to load on yet more."

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