Six survivors change tack;FE Focus

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
Elaine Carlton finds out what has become of the local education authority engines for driving FE, five years after incorporation

Twenty years ago they were thriving regional bodies. Today many have shut up shop, while those which survived incorporation have metamorphosed beyond recognition.

The regional advisory councils (RACs), which prevented duplication among colleges under the management of local education authorities, have experienced mixed fortunes since incorporation.

Some, such as the council based in Newcastle, have succeeded in radically revamping themselves from regional co-ordinators to national assessors, while others including the London and South East Region, entirely collapsed.

James Pearce, chief executive of the Northern Council for Further Education, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary, said: "We have become a national exam body in the years since incorporation because we felt we couldn't survive with our regional profile.

"We started off as an assessment organisation but were then given responsibility to establish FE in the Fifties. Now we have our own national range of vocational qualifications," he said.

Set up in 1848, the Northern Union of Mechanics' Institutes, as it was then called, tried to ensure its members reached high standards. Almost 100 years later it was established as an RAC by the Ministry of Education and rationalised courses on offer in further education in the North. It also ran seminars and training courses for FE staff, but this ended after incorporation.

Mr Pearce said: "Now we provide a service for colleges where we accredit their courses. Our accreditation covers most subjects from a nine-hour introductory programme for bouncers to a full-time course for young people going into the army, police or fire brigade."

"We have some unique areas, such as a certificate for creche workers or an introduction to the World Wide Web, but basically the reason we've survived is that we've become a national body.

"We saw that we were being edged out of the market after incorporation and called in the business consultants. We were told to focus on our main business, which was assessment and accreditation.

"We targeted 400 further education colleges. At the time of incorporation we were working for 60. Today we service 240," he said.

There were nine regional advisory councils at incorporation but today only six remain.

Laurie South was chief executive of London-based LASER, until it folded in 1996 due to lack of funds.

He said: "In 1947 there was a realisation that regional bodies needed to co-ordinate an expansion of vocational training. Where none existed, such as London, local authorities united to create one."

For more than 30 years the new bodies were overwhelmed by work. Any college or polytechnic which wanted to create a new course had to agree this with the RAC.

The free market of the Eighties a Government put an end to this. The RACs found themselves competing with a quango - the Manpower Services Commission - set up by the Employment Department.

Next, a new national body was set up to handle the funding for polytechnics, and gradually FE colleges started moving out of local authority control.

Once their funding was handed over to the Further Education Funding Council in 1992, local authorities told the RACs to become self-financing.

LASER, like many others, turned to accreditation work. It reached an agreement with the City and Guilds examining board to carry out assessment and started to provide training for colleges.

But the joint approach with City and Guilds did not last and the creation of the Further Education Development Agency led to competition for training and staff development work for colleges. Financial difficulties led to closure.

Now, however, London is the home of a new regional body, the FE London Region Services. It was set up by the Association for London Government last year and aims to promote a partnership between local authorities, colleges, and training and enterprise councils.

Executive officer John Wise said: "LEAs no longer want to run colleges, but they want to have a say in their running and have a major interest in adult education.

"The FEFC is talking about increasing the powers of its regional committees and with London getting its own governing body, maybe power is returning to the regions."

WINNERS AND LOSERS

RACs which failed include those in the West Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, London and the South-east. The survivors are Centra in the North-west, the Northern Council for Further Education, the East Midlands Further Education Council, the South Western Association for Further Education and Training, the Association of Colleges in Eastern Region and the Southern Regional Council for Education and Training.

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