Many have written the Learning and Skills Council off as an expensive failure, and not just the Tories, who were committed to abolishing it if they had come to power. As the largest quango in the land, with direct administrative costs of almost pound;1 billion in its first four years, the LSC does look ripe for review.
But what would replace it?
The LSC was born in April 2001 out of the failure of the Further Education Funding Council to ratchet up quality or eliminate scandals in FE colleges.
Before the LSC, we had seen the diversion of resources by local training and enterprise councils from national work-based learning to local pet projects, and a political desire for something more purposeful as a basis for funding post-16 education than the "unseen hand of the market".
In the four years since then, the LSC has had some success. It has overseen a significant increase in attainment by college students, and in the numbers of adults gaining basic-skills qualifications. It has focused its funding on the priorities dictated to it by the Government, severely constraining local discretionary funding to the point that many look back nostalgically on the olden days.
It has laid the basis for more rational planning, with a major mapping exercise of post-16 provision across the country through its 47 local strategic area reviews. It has promoted a spirit of partnership rather than confrontation, to meet problems that are deep-seated and require collective effort. And it has passed on record amounts of grant to its learning providers with no significant scandals or mishaps.
Yet the increases in attainment in the past four years are due mainly to a combination of pressure from the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate with their common inspection framework and the effective re-focusing of college leaders, staff and their corporations.
Finally, and most importantly, despite starting with a record level of grant in 2001-02, and seeing it increase on a conservative estimate by 15 per cent in real terms to pound;8.7bn by 2004-05, the LSC has failed to achieve any increase nationally in the participation either of 16 to 18-year-olds (still 2.6 per cent below its 1994 peak of 77.7 per cent) or of adults on technician or supervisory management courses.
The LSC has been a cautious body. It did initially cull many (mainly small) private training providers on the grounds of poor performance, and is now replacing them with new providers to meet its challenging apprenticeship targets. But it has done nothing to upset schools, and little to upset FE colleges.
Perhaps the principal criticism is that the LSC failed to anticipate the impact of its funding changes to reward higher success rates and to enhance the unit of resource attracted by young people in FE at the expense of adult students.
When combined with the increased numbers of the expanding 16-19 cohort and improving success rates, this has put excessive funding pressure on the LSC's budget, so that it ran out of money in 2004-05 and had to be bailed out by a windfall grant from the Government and short-term borrowing by FE colleges. The prospects for 2005-06 and beyond are decidedly uncertain.
In its defence, the LSC may claim that almost all my criticisms should be directed elsewhere as it has not been given the freedom or tools to do the job. The Department for Education and Skills has driven the changes of funding methodology, not trusted the LSC to do the job.
Even the Foster review of red tape in FE could end up being as much about the LSC's role as about FE colleges. The LSC has felt a threatened body from the start. But what is the alternative? Not the regional development agencies, which cannot plausibly cover school or college-based provision for young people. Nor the sector skills councils, which must represent employers, not the taxpayer. Yet the temptation for the Government to tinker will remain as long as our performance in this sector falls short of the world-class standards to which it rightly aspires.
FE Focus readers may feel the devil they now know is preferable to the unknown alternative.
David Forrester is an independent consultant and a governor of an FE college governor