Tory knives out for LSC

11th February 2005 at 00:00
As an election looms, Steve Hook reports on big Conservative ideas - such as axing FE's mega-quango

As the Conservatives trumpet their plans for further education, the tune sounds strangely familiar.

Their flagship idea is to get school pupils, particularly those who are not motivated by GCSEs, to embark on vocational courses - a government policy re-invented with a touch of Conservative seasoning.

The new flavour, contained in their further education plan, comes in the form of "grants" providing 14 to 16-year-olds with the freedom to choose where they do their vocational training, in contrast to Labour's version which assumes that training will take place at a further education college.

Funding will come from the money saved by that other Tory big idea - which their FE spokesman Chris Grayling hinted at in FE Focus in December - the scrapping of the Learning and Skills Council.

The Bismarck-like structure of the LSC, with its crew of 4,000, looms large in the sights of the Conservatives as they declare war on the Government's flotilla of quangos. Its sinking would not only represent an ideological victory but, the Tories claim, release pound;250 million of bureaucracy costs to spend on vocational training for 14 to 16-year-olds.

Tories claim they would "immediately" allow 300,000 pupils to participate in vocational training with their offer of pound;1,000 grants - meaning a third of 14 to 16-year- olds could have taken part by the end of the next Parliament.

The mantra about the number of adults lacking basic skills - an essential ingredient of many learning and skills ministers' speeches - finds its place in the Tories' diagnosis of lifelong learning.

The Conservatives have not been deterred by the fact that the seven million figure tirelessly quoted in connection with Sir Claus Moser's report is regarded as an exaggeration by many - not least by the Basic Skills Agency and even Sir Claus himself. In fact, not to be outdone, the Tories are putting it at eight million.

While the LSC is not the only public-funded body the Tories would get rid of, they concede they would create at least one of their own. A replacement for the doomed Connexions careers and advice service would be among their initiatives.

There would also be "super colleges" specialising in no more than two vocational areas.

Another theme which will sound familiar is the need to end the "snobbery" towards vocational training.

Conservative leader Michael Howard said: "It is time to end that snobbery.

Our education system must recognise that every person is different, with different aptitudes and ambitions.

"No path is intrinsically superior to any other, or deserves to be automatically better-resourced."

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, responded: "The Tory manifesto would pull the plug on the adult basic skills budget. This would build on the Tory legacy of decades of neglect which left seven million adults without basic skills.

"They will fund just one in five 14-16 year-olds at a third of the cost of a young apprenticeship."

With the Tories' ideas looking so similar to government policy, it looks like the battle for further education will be a traditional clash between Labour "investment" and Tory "efficiency".

* steve.hook@tes.co.uk

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