Power shift to councils could be a land grab

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

Localism has been gaining ground over the past 20 years, influencing everything from Scottish and Welsh devolution to the opening of high- street shops by retail juggernauts such as Tesco and Sainsbury's.

It runs counter to the bigger-is-better mainstream, which reached its zenith - or nadir - with the banking crisis, and the public's disengagement and disillusionment with government and politicians.

FE's antipathy towards the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) is arguably symptomatic of this. What started life eight years ago as a BFG promising to give learning and skills new direction and impetus is now dismissed by many as a blundering behemoth.

It is understandable that the Government wants to localise FE and training by returning power to councils to commission and fund under-19 education and training next April. There is logic, too, in letting regional development agencies (RDAs) develop skills strategies.

But policy is developing piecemeal, with announcements about the role of RDAs first revealed in a leaked letter to FE Focus in August, and now the news that councils will have final sign-off on the skills strategies slipped into a House of Lords debate (page 1).

FE providers and their partners, including councils, are trying to effect next April's changes, and don't need uncertainty.

Something else may be afoot and it looks like a political land grab by local authorities. Having gained power over under-19 education and skills, councils will now have sign-off on RDAs' regional skills strategies.

Alone, these show a power shift to councils. But this week's paper by the Local Government Association gives us a further insight by proposing council-based solutions to education and training problems, including the power to distribute cash channelled through education maintenance allowances. It is worth reading and may have the answers.

But given its track record of springing changes on FE, the Government might first want to explain how a planning and funding system comprising nine RDAs, 150 politicised councils and 43 sub-regional bodies is better suited to delivering an integrated learning and skills agenda than the LSC or a reformed further education funding council.

  • Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus, Email: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com

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