More reform is the only real option

29th September 2006 at 01:00
The Tories invented the Further Education Funding Council in 1993 to finance newly incorporated colleges along free market lines. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find them calling for the Learning and Skills Council - Labour's creation - to be abolished.

Nor is it entirely surprising to find Lord Leitch calling for the LSC to be scrapped, along with a raft of other costly quangos. He may be the man chosen by fellow Scot and chancellor Gordon Brown to survey the UK's skills landscape over the next 15 years. But as a businessman and former chief executive of Zurich Financial Services, quangoland is bound to be anathema.

So, what happens if his recommendations are accepted and the LSC goes? Undoubtedly, some colleges would thrive and get bigger. Others would go to the wall. Many college principals argue that there is too much interventionism and that the council is keeping many institutions in intensive care, instead of letting them die.

However, abolition begs a big question: what will replace it? Colleges and other providers might be funded centrally by the Department for Education and Skills. New NHS-style trusts could be created to carry on the work, maybe at less cost. They could even restore a body akin to the FEFC.

But are any of these real alternatives? Memories are short, people forget how they longed for the FEFC to get off their backs. Quality control was not kept in check, so the council failed to improve standards significantly. Then there were the scandals around franchising and financial mismanagement.

When ministers wanted to deny colleges cash, they simply diverted it to pet projects, through the Training and Enterprise Councils. These days, with a single conduit, it is much more transparent where the money goes.

Paradoxically, that can be a cause of much bellyaching since people see where the money is going and it is not going to them.

The years under the LSC have seen significant improvements in student attainment and the number of adults gaining basic skills. If there are concerns about the huge cuts to "other" adult education, this is the decision of Government, not of the council.

The LSC has scaled back its operations dramatically over the past two years and will continue to do so. Unless people are happy with the turmoil that always follows abolition, they should hope for the continued radical reform of the landscape instead.

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