Post-16 education could change radically under proposals to give councils more powers, reports James Graham
Plans to give Welsh councils the power to propose significant changes to further education have prompted calls for decentralising all post-16 responsibilities.
The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) wants an "open debate" in light of the latest proposals, which would enable education authorities to propose new tertiary colleges and the closure of sixth forms at aided and foundation schools.
It says a discussion about the wholesale transition of post-16 education powers is a logical step in the wake of First Minister Rhodri Morgan's "bonfire of the quangos" and Sir Jeremy Beecham's recent review of public service reform.
A WLGA spokesman said: "Clearly with some additional powers returning to local government it is appropriate we discuss how the rest of the service could be provided better. This is why we have called for an open debate about the return of post-16 further education to local councils."
Consultations closed recently on the latest proposals, which have received strong backing from teaching unions and headteachers who support greater decentralisation.
But college leaders have reacted angrily, saying LEAs have a vested interest in the survival of school sixth forms, and would not act as "honest brokers" because they own schools and receive Assembly funding for sixth forms.
Fforwm, which represents Wales's 23 FE colleges, says independent people should chair local committees looking at reorganisations or that proposals should have the unanimous agreement of all stakeholders. However, the WLGA and the Association of Directors of Education in Wales say that authorities are "best placed" to make strategic decisions because they have a "unique and intimate" knowledge of community needs.
As pupil numbers fall, they say greater powers will enable authorities to "integrate their strategies for planning school places to include post-16 provision".
Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, echoed these views, adding that LEAs should have the power to propose new colleges if they are to "promote collaboration and secure cross-institutional working".
Dr Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said he was "broadly in favour of mechanisms that make education at all levels more accountable to local control".
But he stressed that clear direction should come from the Assembly government to help authorities to tackle reorganisation.
Both the teaching unions, NUT Cymru and NASUWT Cymru, support the delegation proposal, although Geraint Davies, secretary of NASUWT Cymru, stressed he "did not want to see LEAs opening colleges at the expense of sixth forms".
Five "pathfinder" projects proposing reorganisations of post-16 provision have been put on hold pending the consultation outcome. Two of the projects (in Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent) involve sixth-form closures.
The power to propose new colleges and close sixth forms previously belonged to the post-16 funding agency ELWa, with Jane Davidson, minister for education, lifelong learning and skills, making the final decision.
But ELWa's merger with the Assembly government in April has brought both these powers into a new department for education, lifelong learning and skills.
Officials are anxious to separate the two roles, and say delegating the power of proposal to LEAs should enhance their strategic role in post-16 education.
The Beecham review, published last month, noted there had been little movement since 1999 on rationalising sixth-form and FE provision to improve the range and quality of courses being offered to learners.