Councils may get voice back
The Local Government Association and the FEFC are finalising a proposal to be put to Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett. They will argue for local authority input in FE regional planning, restoring some of the power which was stripped away under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
David Whitbread, head of education at the LGA, stressed that they were not talking about college control. "We don't want to put the clock back to pre-1992; we are not interested in fighting yesterday's battles," he said.
But both parties recognise that if they do not restore some of the local democracy lost under the Act, the Government will impose its own regional structures.
The LGA recognises that FE is an established independent sector, but believes that there could be an improved partnership between LEAs and the colleges. One proposal is to give local authority representatives places on college boards. Some colleges still have some LEA representation but it is not compulsory.
The reverse proposal is for colleges to be represented within the LEA, for example on the education committee. At national level, the LEAs would also be offered representation on funding councils.
It is beginning to be perceived that there is a need for some strategic planning. Mr Whitbread said: "At the moment the FEFC manages the system through the funding regime. But there is a feeling that there could be some better way of measuring colleges' development plans and ensuring they match the needs of the region."
For example, numbers for a particular course could be so low that every college in the area decided to drop the subject. With some strategic planning, however, it could be agreed that one college at least was able to run the course.
"Colleges would retain their corporation status. We are talking about providing a framework for improving partnerships, and looking at what is best for everyone in a particular area," said Mr Whitbread.
The intention is that the two organisations will go jointly to Mr Blunkett for ministerial discussions. This would signal their willingness to work together.
The talks were revealed by Graham Lane, chair of the LGA, during his speech this week to the Local Schools Information conference. He said he thought the Association of Colleges would back the idea of colleges having two LEA representatives on their boards.
An LGA spokesman said: "I think this is fairly significant. It gives us some say again on the FE front at a tactical level. It should open up the process for both sides and avoid problems before they even get started.
"The LGA's key theme is partnership. We are trying to minimise difficulties and exploit opportunities. This is one way of doing that. "