New language for a new era
TWO days of debate, a third reading, a possible rocky ride through the Lords and royal assent are all that separate the Learning and Skills Bill from the statute book.
When the Bill becomes law later this summer, it will be the biggest change to hit the sector since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
That Act marked a major reorganisation for colleges - setting them free from local authority control but leaving them to fend for themselves as independent corporations.
This time round colleges have emerged unscathed, but they are just about the only things that have not changed. In all, the Bill's 143 clauses, argued over and amended in hours of debate, add up to a radical overhaul of post-16 education and training.
So what exactly has changed? Well, the name for one thing. Instead of old-fashioned "education and training" we have "learning and skills" - note the softer, new-age feel of the phrase - part of the "vision for the new millennium" set out in the White Paper that preceded the Bill.
That White Paper was called Learning to Succeed. But it could just as well have been titled Failing to Deliver. There is a long-running skills shortage in this country, and schools, colleges, employers and trainers were not - in the words of another prime mover behind the changes, the Government's social exclusion report - "bridging the gap".
The White Paper painted a gloomy picture: "Fundamental weaknesses in the current systems ... planning and funding are complex, inconsistent and confusing ... too many adminstrative layers ... insufficient focus on skill needs."
The Bill's solution is to bring all the providers together under a single funding regime.
A "superquango", the Learning and Skills Council, will oversee all post-16 education and training, and will decide where most of its pound;6 billion budget goes.
The exact funding formula is still under construction, although ministers have pledged it will be simpler than the outgoing Further Education Funding Council's convoluted "unit-based" system.
The 47 local LSCs will, for the most part, carry out the instructions of the central council - they will only have control of between 10 and 15 per cent of funding.
Training and enterprise councils, which they replace, were left pretty much to their own devices, which led to wide disparities in performance. But the local LSCs will use the little discretion they have to measure and meet local skills and education needs.
The Bill's defining characteristic might be its cautious approach. The original 118 clauses have grown to 143 as ministers have sought to make sure that every eventuality is legislated for. Anxious to avoid any repeats such as the failure of colleges like Halton, the council will have access to personal accounts, documents and computer files if they suspect misuse of public funds.
The Bill also gives the council new powers to intervene in the running of colleges and remove, appoint or direct governors. The consolation for governors is that their liability in the event of bankruptcy, has been removed.
Mercifully, for colleges which have had to endure visits from up to five separate scrutiny bodies, inspections will become simpler.
The Office for Standards in Education will check up on services for 16- to 19-year-olds and the new Adult Learning Inspectorate will oversee courses for older people and work-based training.
The big ideas of recent years - individual learning accounts and the University for Industry - are only bit-part players in the Bill. Although ministershave insisted the UfI is "a key partner" of the council, it is not mentioned in the Bill and learning accounts are referred to as "qualifying accounts" in a series of clauses laying down conditions for their issue.
Ironically, for a sector so often denied the publicity it deserves, the Bill's only moments in the spotlight came during debates on clauses not directly concerned with further education. Heated exchanges over grammar school ballots and sex education won widespread coverage.
The future of small school sixth-forms - which the Tories say are under threat and the Government says are safe - also provoked long-running rows. They have died down for now but will soon re-emerge when the first school sixth form is deemed "inadequate" and closed.
Slowly, the new administration is taking shape.
The appointment of Bryan Sanderson - a corporate executive with next to no experience of further education - last week as chairman of the Learning and Skills Council confirmed the new superquango's business-like approach.
Former charity director Anne Weinstock will lead Connexions - the combined careers and counselling service for teenagers - one of few dynamic ideas in a Bill full of administrative cost-cutting.
But the proof of any legislation comes when it is implemented. For all the banter in the Commons committee and the sometimes vitriolic comment in the Lords, actions will speak louder.
Now the talking is nearly over, the education and training - sorry, learning and skills - can begin.
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THE BILL
Baroness Blackstone, Lords FE minister: "The Bill will do away with the incoherence and duplication from which we have suffered in the past. Bringing together the worlds of learning and work is a principle at the core of the Bill."
Malcom Wicks, minister for lifelong learning: "It is fitting that the Bill has been introduced in the first months of our new century. It represents a new policy for a new century.
Baroness Blatch, opposition Lords education spokeswoman: "Consider the plethora of new quangos and the spaghetti-like network of bodies that share responsibility for the guidance, recreation, education and training of 13- to 19-year-olds."
Lord Tope, Lib Dem education spokesman in the Lords: "It is too much to hope that a piece of, inevitably, rather dry and complex legislation could ever capture the passion and excitement of Helena Kennedy's report.
"Tim Boswell, Conservative FE spokesman: "The best that can be said of the Bill is that it seemed like a good idea at the time... it will be buried by bureaucracy. I still feel that there is a strategic failure of imagination.
Phil Willis, Lib
Dem education spokesman: "The real test of the Bill will not be over the next two years but thereafter, when it starts to bite."
TIMETABLE FOR THE FE FUTURE
July 2000: Learning and Skills Council national chair announced. Task groups present survey of local provision.
Summer 2000: Connexions funding and contract arrangements published
September: LSC agrees method for allocating funds to local LSCs. Key national executive appointments made. Training of LSC and satff of new Adult Learning Inspectorate begins.
Autumn: Business plans produced for phase 1 of Connexions
October:National council members announced. LSC issues budgets to its local councils
November:LSC agrees funding allocations to providers (including colleges and school sixth-forms)
December: Adult and Young People's learning committee members announced . Committee will advise the LSC
January 2001: LSC and ALI operate in parallel with existing bodies
February: LSC signs contracts with providers
April: LSC and ALI fully operational. Lunch of Connexions phase 1.