VOTING went strictly along party lines as the National Assembly gave its approval to the blueprint for post-16 education and training in Wales.
The assembly vote opens the way for the creation of the new National Council for Education and Training, with an annual budget of around pound;400 million. The Further Education Funding Council for Wales and the four Welsh training and education councils will be subsumed within the new body.
Sixth forms will also be under the control of the new council.
Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats maintained support for the plans, overwhelming the opposition of the Conservatives, and they were endorsed by 45 votes to five.
Conservative Jonathan Morgan said the 160-minute debate was the most important held since the assembly's inception last year.
But his party's amendments calling for guaranteed business representation on the new council and for sixth forms to stay under local education authority control were defeated.
Mr Morgan said that the sixth-form plans were the "antithesis of local democracy" and that the assembly had failed "the first big test of its ability to create a partnership with business".
Liberal Democrat Christine Humphreys said: "Business has a vital role to play, but not at the expense of other partners. You can't develop a partnership if one partner is more equal than the others. All voices need to be heard."
In his summing-up speech Tom Middlehurst, Assembly secretary for post-16 education and training, appealed for the support of business, promising it a "continuous and substantial role in the new arrangements".
He said he would look particularly favourably on potential members of the new council who were capable of representing more than one interest.
Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru were more succesful with their amendments, winning Labour support for clauses emphasising the importance of Welsh-medium provision. Plaid's Cynog Dafis, chair of the assembly post-16 committee, said colleges had an "appalling" record on Welsh-medium courses. Labour also backed clauses on the difficulties facing rural sixth forms.
A "shadow" council will be appointed in August, to start work in April 2001. Several speakers expressed concern about what would happen to the staff of of the Welsh funding council and the TECs.
Mr Middlehurst said senior posts on the new council would be filled by competition, but other staff would be protected by the Transfer of Undertakings regulation, designed to safeguard the interests of those employed by abolished public bodies.
While he did not say where the council's headquarters will be located, his promise that the location of current staff will be a prime consideration points strongly to Cardiff, home to the Further Education Funding Council for Wales.