Co-operate or face cash penalties
Colleges will face new pressures to implement a tripartite system of regional planning for post-16 education, ministers indicated this week.
The new Government wants greater regional co-operation in education, but principals warned links between colleges, schools and training and enterprise councils would require much greater funding equality.
The Government has promised a carrot-and-stick approach to planning. Colleges will be left to decide their own destiny, but those which fly in the face of efforts to plan education across the regions will be denied cash for expansion.
Ministers are still examining how a regional planning framework might be based, but pressure is mounting for co-operation between colleges, local authorities and TECs.
Members of the Further Education Funding Council raised the issue during a meeting last month with local authority representatives. They are pressing for regional plans to involve colleges, TECs and local authorities, a line which is in keeping with Labour pronouncements.
The FEFC already has a network of regional offices, which could be strengthened. The Association of Colleges has already encountered the need for close liaison with regional government offices.
Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, said he was seeking an early meeting with Baroness Blackstone and the FEFC to discuss the future of further education.
He said: "We don't want colleges to come back into local education authority control. We want the FEFC, TEC boards and local authorities to be jointly involved with colleges in planning provision.
"There is a new attitude within the FE sector and we are keen to get involved in FE because it is so crucial to Welfare to Work. We want local authority representatives on FE college governing bodies, as well as staff, students and the business world."
The Association of Colleges has anticipated moves towards greater regional control and is consulting colleges on a new regional structure of its own.
The AOC board has approved the idea of greater regional work, but an association report warned it "does not want to see its position eroded by the creation of structures which may provide opportunities for disunity".
But senior AOC figures are keen to bring regional college associations into the national AOC structure. The report says the AOC board "is in favour of a well-organised, strong FE regional presence in England and Wales. It is concerned that the current patchy situation in England may work against the interests of some of its members. It therefore wishes to actively encourage the rapid creation of appropriate regional structures to support the local needs of its members in England".
David Eade, principal of Barnsley College and a member of the FEFC board, said there was interest in greater regional co-operation.
He said: "If there is going to be regional planning, there will have to be a more logical approach to the sector: school sixth forms, as well as sixth-form colleges and other FE colleges. If we are going to talk about regional planning, funding of post-16 education is an issue. Until there's a debate about that and some agreement, you will find FE colleges probably a bit reluctant to accept there's a case for regional planning."
Local authorities have already moved to prepare themselves for a new planning role.
In London, local authorities have been signing up to a new body, Further Education London Region Services, to encourage voluntary planning. LEAs, training and enterprise councils, schools and colleges have already been co-operating in local initiatives to raise skill levels up and down Britain, a precursor of Labour's plans for education "action zones".