Editor's comment

30th June 2006 at 01:00
There is a tension at the heart of government that is seriously damaging public sector services. Ministers fail - or refuse - to recognise the difference between policy and implementation. We see this in health, law and order, and education.

In further education, ministers shape policy through Parliament. The Learning and Skills Council carries out funding implementation. Or does it? Increasingly, we see ministers, through the Department for Education and Skills, dictating detail that is beyond their remit. The latest gladiatorial fight in the arena is around the call to make colleges more responsive to demands from employers (page 1).

The FE white paper flagged up demand-led funding, which ministers said should be the norm by 2015. But this is a tough nut to crack. Repeated efforts to introduce such measures over the past 15 years have ended in fiasco, costing hundreds of millions of pounds.

That is not to say this is an impossible dream. After such a catastrophic history, however, the consequences for further failure are too awful to contemplate. But then, like Hitler repeating Napoleon's ill-fated attack on Moscow, big men always think they can win where previous ones failed.

There are numerous arguments in favour of demand-led funding. It helps redirect cash when urgent change is necessary. It opens doors to new training providers with the right skills to offer. It helps when setting targets and identifying the cash needed to hit them. But it can also destroy flexibility and encourages ill-considered investment in training schemes that bring immediate cash.

The LSC should be left to get on with the work of shaping a funding package that ensures well-targeted cash for specific training while retaining flexibility around the much wider lifelong learning challenges facing colleges.

There are parallels in the funding of England's railways. The reason there are five to seven-year contracts with considerable flexibility over the use of cash is that, without this, essential but loss-making branch lines would close overnight. Colleges, in talks with the LSC, know the essential "branch-line" courses and the subsidies needed from profit-making lines to support them.

Many of the white paper proposals, including the call for a better response to the needs of employers, come from Sir Andrew Foster's review of colleges. What we now need is vision and application. If ministers interfere, Foster will instead become synonymous with the Beeching plan of the 1960s that triggered a 40-year run-down of the railways.

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