A fearsome set of controls

4th February 2000 at 00:00
FE will be governed by a skills council with a powerful armoury, but there's plenty to relish in the minutiae of the Learning and Skills Bill, writes Julian Gravatt.

Pity the 40 lawyers strug-gling to draft the Government's legislative programme. This session there are 28 Bills, most of them complicated - a tough load. The pin-stripes are working for an activist government, measuring its progress against hundreds of promises in its summer annual reports.

In addition, recent constitutional change means that each clause in each Bill has to pass a number of new legal tests: compliance with human rights law, observance of European Union regulations, compatibility with law in the devolved nations of the United Kingdom and so on.

If this were not enough, last summer it was reported that any dull Bills would be ditched. The Queen's Speech would contain only laws that helped Labour win the next election.

Given all this, it is no surprise that the Learning and Skills Bill was a little late. It was not issued in November as planned but published on the day before Parliament broke up for Christmas. The Bill has 118 clauses and covers both England and Wales. Yet, the surprise is how little innovation it contains. There are no plans for action zones, few new powers for inspectors, no mention of pay reviews and nothing much on individual learning accounts.

The Bill's central purpose is to equip a number of new organisations with the tools they need to do their jobs: the Learning and Skills Council and its 47 local arms. Inspection will be carried out by two organisations - Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, and the Adult Learning Inspectorate - which will be forced to work in tandem. Finally, there's the Youth Support Service. Ten years after state benefits were withdrawn from teenagers with no job or no home, we will have a service whose aim will be to prevent them getting to this point.

All good legislation is underwritten by effective insurance, which explains the panoply of controls given to the skills councils, but, even so, at first reading, the controls look fearsome. There are few things that they cannot control, few factors they cannot take into account when making their decisions, few reasons they will not have to withhold money or change the rules.

The Bill also confirms the dominance of the national council over the local councils; their legal powers are limited to what the national council delegates. What is given one year could be taken away the next. Local councils must act on the directions from the national body. Unlike training and enterprise councils, the new councils at any level can form or invest in companies ony with the Secretary of State's permission.

Clause 4 of the Bill gives the national council three clear objectives. It has a duty to encourage individuals to learn and to encourage employers to assist this learning and pay for it. The theme of individual and employer contributions appears in various places. The council gets the power to set local fees and the power to take fees into account when handing out its money. It gets the power to carry out means tests. These are all new powers that the Further Education Funding Council does not have. Courses will remain free to the under-19s and those seeking basic skills, but everyone else may have to pay more.

The key controls over what can be funded remain. Schedule 2 of the 1992 Act goes, but, in its place, the Government takes on more powers over the curriculum. In a stringent set of sentences, the Bill requires the Learning and Skills Council to stop its money being spent on qualifications that the Secretary of State has not approved. This solves the scuba diving question ("Can I get money for my diving course?") by controlling the expenditure (the exam and registration fees) rather than the income (the money claimed for the course). Ingenious but not necessarily watertight.

True, it will be easier to check what has been spent but, how, in large organisations, do you know who's paid for it? Look forward to rows over whose money is being used for which purpose. And, if anyone has a watertight definition of the concept "public money", please send to it me.

However, there is good news. The same clauses allow an organisation to be approved in general. Such organisations are likely to be awarding bodies but, with a little imagination, the Secretary of State might accredit certain colleges and employers as well.

The inspection arrangements are much simpler. The Bill draws demarcation lines between Ofsted and the adult inspectorate and requires them to work together on the common inspection framework. If they fail to agree, the Secretary of State can impose one.

The Welsh clauses on inspection make an interesting contrast, because they establish a single inspectorate. Much simpler. Perhaps it helps that Chris Woodhead is not Welsh.

Finally, the Bill also gives the inspectors a remarkable new set of powers to get what they want. They can enter premises, observe what's going on and take records. They can also access the computer that produced the record and obtain help from the person managing the computer. Obstructors can be fined a maximum of pound;2,500. You have been warned!

Julian Gravatt is registrar of Lewisham College, south-eastLondon: jgr@staff.lewisham.ac.uk

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