ELWa and the Pop Factory

31st March 2006 at 01:00
First came Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now read about ELWa and the Pop Factory.

The post-16 education funding body's bruising five-year lifespan has been turned into a work of history. Prepare for a warts-and-all chronicle, says author Professor Mike Sullivan, director of the national centre for public policy at Swansea university.

The tale of ELWa - which is about to be consumed by First Minister Rhodri Morgan's "bonfire of the quangos" - runs to 40,000 words including appendices. Created to replace "multiple bodies" dealing with post-16 education, the agency was "confronted with making cuts from day one". It also had to share a chief executive with the Wales Higher Education Funding Council, says the book. Amid the flux, almost 100 jobs were cut in 2003.

"One problem was turbulence over procurement projects - not in a way that was dishonest but too dependent on entrepreneurial spirit," says Professor Sullivan.

In an ill-fated involvement with the Pop Factory, ELWa gave pound;4 million to a scheme for training deprived youngsters in the Rhondda in music and TV. But the site in Porth sat derelict for a year. ELWa then demanded half of its money back. As a result, in 2003 there were damning criticisms from auditors and calls for Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, to resign.

"A misadventure," says Professor Sullivan. "Mistakes were made but were learnt from."

The arrival of Dr Peter Higson, as interim chief executive, led ELWa "to clean up its act and make sure processes were squeaky clean".

Sheila Drury taking over the chair also helped recovery, says Professor Sullivan. "She's not used to the answer 'No'. She could see where the buttons were and was willing to press them."

So is ELWa being killed off unfairly? For AM Leighton Andrews (Labour, Rhondda), ELWa "goes to the quango graveyard entirely unlamented".

Professor Sullivan is more diplomatic. "It's an evolutionary process. The Assembly is ready for greater powers."

ELWa's history is a volume for connoisseurs. Learning providers, partners and agency staff have been circulated with a copy. But it is probably something for under the library counter rather than Waterstone's window.

And the public cost? "A reasonably small outlay - much less than a journalist's expenses used to be," says Professor Sullivan.

But ELWa admits it ate up pound;31,000, around 75p per word. "Research and writing over eight months cost pound;17,500. Design print and distribution cost pound;13,500," a spokesman said.

"Given it will help pass on the lessons of a public body responsible for a pound;3 billion investment in education, this is good value."

Unfinished Business - An Independent Case Study of ELWa, by Professor Mike Sullivan, Swansea university

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