Agency reforms could mean resources tighter for most vulnerable students, says fforwm. James Graham reports
Further education colleges in Wales fear essential services aimed at the most "vulnerable" students could be cut as part of the Assembly government's public service reform.
The government is preparing to bring a number of agencies, including the qualifications, curriculum and assessment agency ACCAC and the post-16 funding agency ELWa, in-house by April 2006. The move is designed to cut bureaucracy and increase accountability.
But fforwm, which represents 25 FE institutions in Wales, fears the reform's emphasis on efficiency could lead to even tighter budgets after two years of no growth.
A spokesperson said the Assembly's own push to take education out of the campuses and into communities to help tackle social exclusion meant there were now 3,000 outreach centres.
But these could be threatened by the government's commitment to save pound;600 million across the major public bodies by 2010.
She added: "Outreach provision is expensive because it's out of campus and often quite intense. There's a danger we could be forced into not catering for those who are most vulnerable."
But Geraint Davies, secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru, was positive about the changes to ELWa, saying the new "streamlined" service should increase funds.
ACCAC, though, should remain independent. "Any advisory function should be outside and independent of government, but as from next April that will not be the case."
Wil Edmunds, chair of ACCAC, has advised the Assembly that work on regulating qualifications in Wales should retain "a sufficient degree of independence" when it is handed over to an expanded education department in 2006. Independence is needed "to ensure good working relationships with other regulators, such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority", he says in ACCAC's official response to a consultation document on the mergers.
Mr Edmunds welcomed the principles behind the changes but stressed that the pace of reform must "pay due and proper regard to the continuity of business during and beyond the merger period".
Other responses expressed concern over the impact the changes will have on staff working at the agencies.
The National Union of Teachers Cymru said the "vast" mergers would increase the workload for staff, who in some cases will have to re-apply for their jobs.
Secretary Gethin Lewis said: "Many are involved in the necessary work incurred in preparation for the mergers and are still having to cope with their full, normal workload. This is not equitable."
The three unions representing staff working for the agencies concerned, Prospect, PCS and Unison, issued a joint response highlighting the "uncertainty, turbulence, disruption and confusion" that often result from such changes.
"Major reorganisations invariably take two to three years to bed down, often only to be superseded by yet further change to satisfy political whims or changes in government."
They said they supported "the principle of enhancing democratic accountability in Welsh public services at all levels of governance" but warned against further centralisation.
A spokesperson for the Assembly government said it would be responding to the results of its consultation "in due course".