Mega quango's fall gives rise to new beginning

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
Final dissolution of the LSC didn't create a stir but its successors undoubtedly will

In the end there were no fireworks, street parties, beating of breasts or gnashing of teeth. In fact, this week's final dissolution of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and the birth of the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) was remarkable for its unremarkableness.

After exactly nine years - it launched officially on April 1, 2001 - and the passage of pound;86 billion through its coffers, this mega quango has finally disappeared with barely a ripple.

The suspicion is, of course, that the changes that took place this week will, like some oceanic earthquake, result in a tsunami of change for the FE and training system in the not too distant future. But, while not wishing to dwell on the legacy of the LSC, it is worth remembering that David Blunkett, then education secretary, set it up as "the platform for achieving the vision of a learning society".

Its more prosaic role, as John Harwood, the LSC's first chief executive, said in a letter to FE Focus in January 2001, was to provide robust and effective oversight of the financial health of colleges, including capital expenditure.

So, do we have a learning society? Not yet. While the LSC has funded programmes for almost 35 million people in its time, the recent cuts to adult learning, which have been publicly attacked by Mr Blunkett, have hit colleges and communities hard. Current concern over the numbers of young people still not in employment, education or training (Neets) has also taken the shine off its achievements.

There is no doubt that the financial health and management of our colleges improved under the LSC. However, the recession - which lay outside the control of the council - and the management of the Building Colleges for the Future programme - which didn't - have conspired to weaken providers.

Overall, then, the LSC scrapes seven out of ten from FE Focus - it is Good Friday after all. It would have gained a solid eight, maybe even nine, had it not been for the council's Icarus-like trajectory. Like the mythical hero, the LSC will be remembered more for its landing than its flight.

So, what of its successors - the YPLA, SFA, the National Apprenticeships Service, not to mention the other major stakeholders in the shape of the 150 local authorities and the nine Regional Development Agencies?

The sheer complexity of the new system is a concern to many in FE seeking simplified lines of communication between provider, learner and employer. There is much talk of demand-led FE and training but can this hydra-like structure deliver it?

Does it not also introduce an unnecessary disconnect in the shape of the YPLA for under-18s and the SFA for adults? What about the risks of bringing the politics of county hall back into FE and training? And what saving does this multifaceted superstructure deliver for hard-pressed public finances?

But above all, these are turbulent times, and FE providers need some stability. Universities face their own challenges but at least they are dealing with the same Higher Education Funding Council for England they have had for 18 years.

As React Programme director John Freeman (page 32) says: "Will it all go smoothly? Yes - in the technicalities. Will it all be easy? No, of course not ."

Just how challenging remains to be seen but, in the meantime, FE Focus wishes further education well as it embarks on this next stage in its journey.

Comment, page 32

Alan Thomson, Editor; E: alan.thomson@tes.co.uk.

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