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Tighter grasp costs us dear

A month after publication, it's tempting to forget about the Further Education white paper, Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances.

More immediate issues take precedence in most colleges, including this year's budget, inspections and keeping up with the changing faces at the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). The daily joys of college life leave little time to scrutinise the well-written words of civil servants. So it's tempting to forget the white paper - but to do so would be wrong.

The first point about the white paper is that it confirms the LSC in its role. The council is given several tasks and maintains its role as funder, regulator and occasional planner. At the start of its sixth year, this is a vote of confidence from the Government which should not go unremarked.

The life of national quangos these days can be short, and occasionally nasty. Comparable bodies such as the NHS Modernisation Agency or the Strategic Rail Authority had much shorter lives. The LSC's Welsh equivalent, Elwa, disappeared this month. The long-term future for the LSC is by no means assured but, if the first test is survival, it hasn't done badly.

The second point about the white paper is that colleges have an important role in government plans. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ruth Kelly put their signatures to a document which says that further education is central to government plans and ambitions.

Further education has been defined in a new way - to cover colleges and training providers - but the recognition of the college role has to be helpful. At a time when all parts of government are gearing up for the tightest three-year spending round in a decade, the white paper contains important votes of confidence.

Colleges are seen as organisations which can add to economic growth and social mobility. They are seen as central to the Government's ambitions for 14-19 education and training. Although the current reality in many colleges seems some way short of the white paper's promises, it has to be better to have the right words and insufficient action than to have no words at all.

Then there is competition. The white paper confirms the commitment to extend competition. Competition will be used to select the organisation to offer extra sixth- form places and, where necessary, to replace failing providers. It will be extended in work-based learning, while competitively-tendered schemes such as Train to Gain will grow in importance.

This increase in competition is a major issue, because it will disrupt the current way of doing things. But the extent of competition falls short of some predictions, and its impact on colleges will vary.

To a large extent, competition is now a non-negotiable element in the public sector. The important questions are about implementation, in particular ensuring that processes are fair, transparent and designed to deliver sensible outcomes.

In its report for the Foster review, the Work Foundation argued for long-term contracts to ensure sufficient investment and risk-taking by the colleges or training providers who won the bids. By contrast, short-term transactional contracts resulted in cream-skimming and under-investment.

The white paper leaves some doubt on this point. The Government simultaneously supports the long-term approach of the LSC's Agenda for Change but talks up the virtues of short-term, demand-led funding.

For all the talk of competition, the strongest theme in the white paper is intervention. Despite college successes in the last five years in raising success rates, maintaining satisfaction and eliminating poor provision, the Government seems determined to increase its grip.

A system of performance indicators, improvement notices and actions to speed up coasting colleges will keep various government agencies very busy for the next few years.

The case for this approach is not really explored in the white paper. One rule in life is that if you want to find problems, you'll find them. To some extent, this is the Government's approach to further education. It is questionable whether the costs are fully justified at a time of public spending restraint. A regulatory apparatus costing hundreds of millions of pounds means that this money is not available for other purposes.

The white paper set out government plans to act in the best interests of learners and employers by intervening on their behalf. An alternative way to meet those interests would be action to reduce central costs to free more money for the classroom and the training suite.

Julian Gravatt is director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges

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