We're hearing fighting talk, and rightly so

20th March 2009 at 00:00

It takes a lot to rile the further education sector, let alone goad its leaders into concerted action at national level.

However, the Learning and Skills Council can claim success in this respect because its handling - many would say spectacular mishandling - of the capital funding for college buildings.

Monday's national meeting of principals is a line in the sand. College leaders are seriously angry and frustrated by the delays and utter confusion that now beset the Building Colleges for the Future programme. For many it is not a simple case of "as you were" and "keep doing what you are doing in your current accommodation".

This is not a case of putting off the new conservatory until next year. Colleges have closed buildings ready for demolition, shunted students and staff around, postponed new courses, spent millions on planning applications and have shelved growth strategies.

Delays to building programmes are also damaging to a further education sector that is under pressure to deliver so much in the teeth of recession. And if all that wasn't enough, there is a negative impact on colleges as they strive to improve the quality of the education and training they deliver.

As Dame Ruth Silver writes in this week's letters (page 7, opposite) "Hands up anyone who thinks we should tame our aspirations .". This is fighting talk, and rightly so. But action is also required, and it is to be hoped that Monday's meeting will propose some practical next steps.

Perhaps local authorities could step in to fund local college redevelopment in the interim, perhaps recouping the money later from the Learning and Skills Council or central government? A bit of goodwill business before next year's machinery of government changes?

West Oxfordshire District Council is to be congratulated for blazing a trail with an offer to finance the rebuild at Abingdon and Witney College.

Unfortunately, it seems the sector can no longer rely on the LSC to sort things out. Already mired in the chaos over capital funding, we learn this week that the council has now delayed the announcement of 16 to 19 funding while officials find another Pounds 65 million to pay for extra students that perhaps someone might have foreseen as heading FE's way because of the recession.

Circumstances, not least the economy, have dealt the council a rotten hand. But, with a year to go until it is wound up, it is hard not to feel that this is a lame duck body. Colleges cannot let circumstances, however challenging, blow them off course and Monday's meeting is a sign that they are not going to.

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