Blunkett seizes new powers over colleges

21st January 2000 at 00:00
The new Learning and Skills Bill will give the Education Secretary unprecedented control over institutions that he thinks are struggling, reports Harvey McGavin.

SWEEPING NEW powers to intervene in the running of colleges will be granted to the Education Secretary as part of the reforms of post-16 education.

The Learning and Skills Bill will allow the minister to remove, appoint and direct governing bodies where their college "has serious weaknesses, is failing or likely to fail", or where "he is satisfied that the institution's governing body have acted or are proposing to act unreasonably".

The new powers are included in the Bill as amendments to section 57 of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.

Previously the Act allowed intervention only when a college was being mismanaged and on the recommendation of the Further Education Funding Council.

The new provisions do away with that requirement and enable the Secretary of State to intervene directly.

Section 57 has been invoked only twice - when the board of Wirral Metropolitan Coollege was replaced last year and at Derby Wilmorton College in 1995.

The Bill says the Secretary of State may give governors "such directions as he thinks expedient". It adds: "A governing body must comply with any directions given to them."

It also allows the Learning and Skills Council to appoint governors if there is a vacancy on a college board. However, no more than two members of any boardcan be appointed in this way.

The Association of Colleges, while describing the Bill as a "step in the right direction", expressed anxiety at the "apparently unconstrained" powers being given to appoint governors an inetrvene. It has also produced a list of 15 other "issues of concern".

John Brennan, the association's director of development, said: "We are anxious to understand under what circumstances the Secretary of State would want to use these powers - they shouldn't be used lightly just because a college has got into a bit of difficulty."

In the House of Lords this week, where the Bill received an unopposed second reading, Tory peers accused the Government of introducing a "spaghetti-like" network of bureaucracy in post-16 education.

Baroness Blatch, Conservative spokesperson on education in the Lords, dismissed Government claims that the Bill would strip away "waste, duplication and unnecessary competition". The Bill will abolish the 72 Training and Enterprise Councils and Further Education Funding Council and replace them with a central Learning and Skills Council, with 47 local arms.

She said: "It is an extraordinary claim when one considers the plethora of new, unelected quangos and the sheer spaghetti-like network of bodies that share responsibility for the guidance, recreation, education and training of 13- to 19-year-olds."

Baroness Blackstone, minister for further and higher education, responded that the Bill was an "attack on bureaucracy" and that the National Audit Office had identified 25 agencies that might scrutinise colleges each year.

Former Tory education minister Lord Baker said that the Bill contained "threats to sixth forms" because it took the responsibility for funding away from local authorities. But Baroness Blackstone assured the Housethat "where pupil numbers do not drop... funding (for sixth-forms) will be maintained."

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