Challenge the changes

7th October 2005 at 01:00
We are not the harbingers of doom and gloom as suggested in FE Focus (September 23, "Skills council to cull jobs") Our view is that Agenda for Change is far too rushed and, in terms of a restructuring exercise for staff, very poorly furnished with information and support.

The greatest weakness is its failure to utilise the skills of existing staff, instead being overt about external recruitment and the need to use consultants at vast public expense at the same time as making posts redundant. It is ironic that the Government's leading skills organisation has failed to consider an internal re-skilling exercise before rushing into these changes. That is why we have mounted a strong campaign in defence of jobs in the LSC and why we have officially requested more time for consultation.

But the union's starting point is that Agenda for Change will fail to deliver for learners. There has been very little scrutiny of the proposals, indeed it is difficult to get hold of them, because there is so little detail. It concentrates on issues of process rather than the big picture.

We know that the LSC will do less data analysis (problematic for identifying equality of opportunity issues), simplify funding (problematic for assurance of pound;9 billion of taxpayer money), beef up the influence of employer agendas in colleges (problematic for securing a workforce skilled on the needs of the economy and not short-term business needs) and develop college reputation based on their success with employers (problematic for the sustainability of many adult and community-based courses). It is mystifying that there is not more debate about these proposals and their possible consequences.

Agenda for Change is a manifesto for employers, at no expense to employers themselves, substantial government resources are to be re-focused on employers as "the partners of choice" and the learning agenda, that, alongside the skills agenda, underpinned the formation of the LSC is simply lost in a sea of technocratic management speak. A single national directorate is expected to take care of lifelong learning, young people's learning, learner support, improving quality and funding. These functions are not mirrored at a regional level. There are simply too few resources to meet the requirements of government agendas.

Agenda for Change is a fascinating exercise in spin. It supposedly releases pound;40 million to frontline services. Is this pound;40m additional to previous levels in programme budgets? Is the Government increasing the number of adult learners or apprentices as a result of Agenda for Change or is there in fact a cut in the number the LSC can support? According to the LSC, Agenda for Change has nothing to do with the Gershon proposals to reduce the size of the civil service. Mark Haysom, the LSC's chief executive, can apparently do what he likes. Why is the LSC so concerned to stress that the proposals are separate to treasury and spending review requirements? Is it because the cuts go much deeper than required by Gershon? Is it because there are more changes in the pipeline?

One of the biggest problems facing the LSC is the question of governance.

How does Agenda for Change make the LSC accountable to learners? It neutralises the local LSCs. Once again the regional agenda removes the connection to localism. The "democratic question", always problematic for the Government's biggest quango, is not easily resolved and, through Agenda for Change, it has just become one of the most challenging issues to face the Government's skills agenda, as Ken Livingstone understands well.

Many have made positive comments about the LSC's plans to regionalise and to become more focused. We do not object to rationalisation where it makes sense, but The TES should be looking at what the LSC intends to focus on.

It is about time all concerned exercised a little bit more healthy scrutiny.

Ruth Serwotka PCS LSC group president 160 Falcon Road London

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