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Think local, urges Clarke

The Education Secretary wants local learning and skills councils to break free of the national LSC straitjacket and develop their own approaches. Ngaio Crequer reports

LOCAL learning and skills councils were urged by the Government this week to break free of their national lead body.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, said being more independent was the only way they would be able to identify the particular skills gaps in their 47 areas.

His remarks, coinciding with the LSC's second birthday on Tuesday, will be seen as a wake-up call to the quango, which took over from the Further Education Funding Council on April 1, 2001.

In a speech to the British Chambers of Commerce, he said: "It is very important that local learning and skills councils develop a more autonomous and independent approach to the challenges in their locality." The councils needed to look beyond the work of the national LSC to develop their own strategies and approaches. They needed to say, 'what do we need in our patch?', he said.

The Government has allocated an annual budget of pound;8 billion, going up to pound;9.2bn over the next three years, to the LSC. This is twice the entire budget of the Department for Trade and Industry and, said Mr Clarke, so it was important to get things right to justify the massive investment.

Delegates questioned him about the excessive bureaucracy involved in making funding bids, and the amount of control from the LSC's head office in Coventry. "There is no lack of willingness at the local level," said one.

"But Coventry imposes on us issues that make it difficult to respond to local circumstances."

Mr Clarke agreed that enterprising local councils faced too many constraints. He said: "They feel held back by the national LSC. They want to get on but they feel there is a bureaucratic straitjacket. I have discussed this with the LSC and I believe there will be changes."

David Frost, director general of the chambers of commerce, said he supports Mr Clarke's intention to curtail the "damaging centralising approach" of the national LSC, but he added "We believe that bringing about change here may be more difficult than he thinks."

But John Harwood, chief executive of the LSC, rejected the charge that the LSC is too "top-down", saying there was a huge amount of activity locally.

He said: "It is not our job to tell every part of the country what the answer is. We are not doing that and we are not that kind of organisation."

While Mr Clarke emphasises activity at a local level, the LSC has been stressing broader, regional skills needs. It wants local councils to work together on these. Bryan Sanderson, LSC chairman, told FE Focus: "I think the regions have got to become and will become more influential. I think a lot of things are better done further away from central government. We need a co-ordinated regional focus.

"But we want to get bureaucracy down and we don't want to create another whole layer of management."

Despite the need for more regional focus, he believes the LSC has succeeded in one of its most difficult tasks - bringing education and business closer together, even if the organisation is not as well-known as some smaller quangos.

He said: "I think the LSC is getting a higher profile with businesses. At first, there was a certain amount of resentment about the demise of the TECs.

"I think that has gone away now. But I don't think promoting the LSC as a brand is the important thing. It is the colleges and other training providers which need to be well-known."

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