The all-singing all-dancing act

8th September 2000 at 01:00
The new legislation will be longlasting but will also see the survival of a distinct FE sctor, thinks John Hall.

Off with the old, on with the new. Within 48 hours of Betty Boothroyd announcing that she would be hanging up her dancing pumps for good, the Learning and Skills Bill received the Royal Assent. The new Act may not be as decorous as Madam Speaker but, like her, it commanded a remarkable level of support during its parliamentary passage, and is likely to be around as long as the Tiller Girls. To adapt Betty Boothroyd's quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes, "There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" - and a time to take stock of the Learning and Skills Act.

The Bill's main provisions have passed unscathed into statute. There were, of course, moments of high drama when politics turned the debate in Westminster upside down. Amendments relating to sex education, grammar schools and city academies almost did for the Bill what Thing One and Thing Two did for domestic good order in Dr Seuss's poem about the "Cat in the Hat" - grabbing the headlines, gobbling up parliamentary time and distracting attention from the main reforms. And, like Thing One and Thing Two, sex education dominated the debate right up until the last minute when the Government's attempt to repeal Section 28 was defeated in the Lords. As the goldfish said in "Cat in the Hat", this was simply not meant to be!

But back to the serious business of how the Act will make an impact on the new post-16 structure. The Secretary of State's vastly increased powers to remove governors of a further education college and issue directions in the event of mismanagement, serious weakness or unacceptable standards of education have reached the statute book (see College Manager, March 2000). So has the power of the Learning and Skills Council to appoint up to two governors.

However, the draconian restriction in the original Bill on thepower of colleges to set up companies has been modified. The Act now allows for the national council to give its consent to a college forming a company for the purpose of providing education secured by public funds. This means that the Learning and Skills Council will probably continue the regulatory policy of the FEFC - look for example at that latter council's Circular 9914 - thus giving the Government a sensible way out of a conjuring trickthat could have gone badly wrong(see College Managr, June 2000).

The Act also extends the powers of FE corporations to provide secondary education of any kind. Interestingly, higher education corporations are given identical powers.

Statutory relief for college governors against personal liability has at long last been granted, putting them on a similar footing to company directors, provided that they have acted honestly and reasonably. This is a welcome change, prompted by representations by the Association of Collerges and lawyers over at least five years and the recommendations of the Neill Committee (see College Manager, May 2000).

A new clause allows for relief to be obtained before a governing body takes action that might give rise to liability - a novel idea. The Secretary of State is also given the power to protect governors of designated sixth form colleges by incorporating them. This should bring to an end the small but anomalous category of colleges that have no corporate status.

On the planning of post-16 learning (see College Manager, April 2000), the Government has signalled that it will require standards from private providers that are as high as those expected from colleges. Regulation is likely to be enforced, at least in part, through funding terms and conditions. In a concession to local government, the Act will no longer permit the incorporation by the Secretary of State of adult institutions maintained by local education authorities. David Blunkett is now only empowered to establish additional FE corporations that are concerned with the education of persons aged 16-19. In all other cases the authority has a right of veto.

If Madam Speaker has hung up her dancing pumps for good, can the same be said for what used to be known as the FE sector? The answer is no. The Act places a duty on the Adult Learning Inspectorate to keep the Secretary of State informed about the quality, standards and financial resources of education and training that are within its remit. This is reflected in the duties of the Learning and Skills Council to persons aged 16-19, whether they are in full or part-time education. So under the Learning and Skills Act there will still be a distinct "FE Sector" underpinned by specific statutory duties. May it flourish under the new regime! There will be a time to plant and a time to build FE from April 1, 2001 when the new Act takes effect.

John T Hall is head of education law at Eversheds, solicitors, London EC4

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