Mandarins keep spinning

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Civil servants at the Department for Education and Employment are perfecting the art of juggling. Since the White Paper, Learning to Succeed, and last year's Budget, the department has undertaken two widespread consultations and begun a fundamental change of education and training.

The speed is as frightening as a circus performance. Just as one might thrill to the chances jugglers take, one worries about the risks our domestic jugglers are taking. What if the speed results in a miss? Is it a recoverable irrelevance or more serious?

A propectus was published at the same time as The Learning and Skills Bill. This is an update on the White Paper, will be forgotten in a year as other documents supplant it, but for the moment it records the state of Whitehall's thinking. The most impressive thing about it is how much is going on.

The prospectus shows how the vast field of education and training is to be managed from 2001. School sixth form funding, transfers to the Learning and Skills Council, new forms of sixth form colleges are promised, transition arrangements outlined month by month and the division of duties between national and local skills councils re set out - but with enough flexibility for a changeof balance as events unfold.

The University for Industry appears and self-assessment is back. This will be self-assessment against skills council criteria and is additional to external inspections. In more than one place, the prospectus promises less red tape. We shall see.

We're moving into a complicated and demanding new zone. There are no changes to the legal status or powers of colleges but we all face a more interventionist and planned future. It may take time to get used to the shift from a single boss at the FEFC to a new era of matrix management.

We will need to re-learn the art of juggling ourselves - but a new sort. Colleges will need to juggle instructions from new organisations, all of which can make conditions, demand data and insist on action. It will be an improvement if the centre holds. More crucially, the Government must know when to let go as well as when to say No.

Julian Gravatt

The Bill on Parliament's website: www.publications.parliament.ukpald199900ldbils0142000014.htm

The Prospectus on the DFEE website:

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