Utilitarians have won the struggle for power

6th October 2000 at 01:00
THE FINANCIAL pages have been full in recent months of big takeover stories.

Whether it is WalMart gobbling up Asda, or one mobile phone company swallowing another, the incoming management team talk about tighter controls, focused activities and sharper images.

That same language is being used about the new learning and skills councils: under them, vocational education and training will give better value, become more relevant, and reach more customers.

The winner in this particular takeover has been the training and enterprise council movement. Their campaign has been brilliantly managed. From a position of imminent oblivion when the White Paper appeared 18 months ago, they have fought a superb defensive action not only to survive but to dominate the new councils. Whatever the intentions of the government at the time, the funding and planning of vocational education, and, in time, school sixth forms, has been placed in the hands of those who take a utilitarian view.

There have been a series of obvious snubs to the Further Education Funding Council. The new masters like the FEFC's fancy offices in Coventry, but evidently not the people who work there.

The fate of the more conspicuous losers, like the chairman and the chief executive, is well known and perhaps no more than is to be expected from this kind of forced merger.

But the victims are not limited to head office. The choices for executive directors of local learning and skills councils confirm that, on the whole, FEFC staff are not thought to be up to the jobs for which they applied.

I am not suggesting that everything that the FEFC did was wonderful or that all staff were beyond reproach, but when the plug was pulled some bonny babies were thrown out with the bath water. No doubt some will reappear as education and training consultants. Their advice may be needed. Colleges are by far the biggest providers of vocational education and training, and are therefore likely to be very significant contractors of services, yet only a handful of the learning and skills councils will be led by a person with ny sort of recent FE experience.

The skew towards the culture of the TECs is unmistakable and clearly deliberate. The few college principals whose applications to be executive directors were successful can have no doubts about the delicate nature of the relationships which they will have to develop with their fellow executive directors, as well as with the host of would-be providers knocking on their door. It's comforting to know that those who were chosen are obvious stars who carry the confidence of those who know them.

The logic of creating a single planning and funding body for post-compulsory education and training follows the arranged marriage of the departments of education and employment, back in 1995. What is clear now is that employment has won the argument.

To whom does this matter? Individuals with bruised egos will be miserable for a time. Colleges will find the cultural shift more or less taxing, according to their experience of work-based training, private training providers will slip easily into the new world, and will not need interpreters for any unfamiliar language. But what of the students or trainees? Perhaps a side benefit of new councils will be the use of a single term to describe people who are learning.

Learners in the new system will be looking for clear routes, fair funding, and qualifications whose value they understand. They will not want to have to work out for themselves the differences between competing opportunities, some of which may lead to dead-ends.

Given that the culture and style of the 47 local LSCs will be set by the centre, the freedom of executive directors to act will be limited to matters of emphasis rather than substance, despite their power to redirect some funds to their own priority areas. But if they bring about a post-16 world where you get the same opportunities wherever you are in the country, those who have been unhorsed recently will at last be able to reflect that their momentary loss of dignity is not without its brighter side.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rosendale College

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