Neil Munro on opposition to a Learning and Skills Council north of the border
THE radical changes to post-16 education and training in England have been greeted with alarm in Scottish further education circles, although there are no indications that the Executive is thinking along similar lines.
The English plans, contained in the Learning to Succeed White Paper published in June, will sweep away most of the current structures outside higher education and replace them with a Learning and Skills Council (LSC) from next April. It will be based in Coventry and operate through 47 local learning and skills councils.
Details were spelt out last week by Jim Donaldson, chief inspector at the Further Education Funding Council in England and one-time member of the Scottish HMI.
The funding council's responsibilities for 400 colleges are to be subsumed within the new organisation which will also replace the 80 training and enterprise councils and the employer-dominated Training Standards Council. The super-quango's remit will extend to Investors in People and the education business partnerships.
It will fund a total of 4,000 different public and private training providers, the intention being to bring more coherence to the complex world of FE and work-based training and qualifications.
Delivering the latest in the series of lectures run by the Scottish Further Education Unit, Mr Donaldson declared: "It may be that the concept of the FE sector will not be so easily identifiable as it has been in the past."
This was an implicit warning that a new competitive training market is being created south of the border in which the FE colleges, with an even more chequered financial and management history than has been the case in Scotland, will no longer enjoy a protected place.
They will have to fend off strong competition for funding, particularly since decisions will be taken at national level by the LSC where employers will be the largest single voice.
Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, criticised a "top-down" approach which could undermine colleges' flexibility and their ability to respond to local circumstances if it were to spread north of the border. "Such a model would restrict the broad-based community purposes of FE," Mr Kelly said.
The implication that FE is simply about training was also challenged by Janet Lowe, principal of Lauder College. "Colleges are also major players in supporting economic development, social inclusion, the knowledge economy and innovation," Ms Lowe said. "I doubt whether this increasingly mature and sophisticated approach could be replicated by Joe Bloggs Training Inc."
She feared that college autonomy and responsiveness would be lost if, as planned, all new courses have to be approved by the local LSCs in England. "We consigned that approach to the bin years ago and would not like to see it revived," Mr Kelly said.
Post-16 inspection arrangements are also to be reformed in a complex package. OFSTED under its controversial head Chris Woodhead will be given powers to scrutinise all 16-19 courses in schools, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges. A revamped "adult inspectorate" will deal with post-19 provision.
The confusion of colleges having to deal with two inspectorates was criticised by John Young, deputy director of the SFEU. Colleges are already suffering from "audit fatigue", Jim Mackie, chairman of the board of management at Falkirk College, said.
Mr Donaldson said the intention was to streamline the inspection process so that "colleges did not have one lot of inspectors arriving as another were leaving."
He also hoped that life would be made easier for colleges if the three existing English inspectorates could agree on a common framework for all inspections. This should include a self-assessment approach which is much closer to the Scottish model but is opposed by Mr Woodhead.