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Tories to 'set colleges free'

The tories have set out their vision for the future of further education in what they say is their biggest statement of policy intentions since they were last in power.

The Conservatives have published a green paper on post-16 education, which promises colleges greater autonomy. They would provide amp;#163;100 million for adult community education and courses to attract teenagers not in education, employment or training (the so-called Neets), regardless of whether these lead to qualifications.

David Willetts, shadow secretary for innovation, universities and skills, said that his party viewed the planning role of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) as too prescriptive, and Neets as one area where rules could be relaxed.

But he remains sceptical about the Government's decision to raise the education and training age to 18 to reduce drop-out rates.

"I want FE to reach out to young people, but you do have the risk that reluctant young people will disrupt the education of those who want to learn, and I don't think the Government has taken that into account," he said.

With the LSC due to be wound up in 2010, Mr Willetts said the Government's plans for replacing it - with a Skills Funding Agency for post-18s and a Young People's Learning Agency working with local authorities for 16- to 18-year-olds - were too complex.

Instead, the Tories would bring back a modified Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), which was replaced by the LSC in 2001.

"I understand local government should have some input," Mr Willets said, "but going back to local education authority funding of FE seems to me to be an unnecessary complication of the system.

"We think the LSC distorts college behaviour. We have set our own direction, which involves a single funding agency modelled on the old FEFC.

"We will be more trusting and less micro-managing. One of the things David Cameron Conservatism stands for is giving people more space to do what they believe is right."

He refused to rule out the possibility that funding levels would be cut, but said plans had been drawn up based on current spending.

Potential savings include reducing the assessment of existing skills levels under the Train to Gain programme, which subsidises employers to increase the skills of their staff. Mr Willetts said this activity should be replaced, with more money spent on tuition.

He said FE "had been the big losers" from the decision to split the Department for Education and Skills. But the party stops short of a proposal to merge the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills with the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "Colleges welcome the reiteration of the central role that they play in driving the skills agenda that is explicit within these proposals, and the recognition that fully independent, locally-focused colleges are the best way to ensure success."

Under Tory rule, sector skills councils, set up by Labour to represent employers in the education marketplace, would be strengthened. In addition, training costs of apprenticeships would be fully funded, and small businesses would receive a amp;#163;2,000 grant towards the cost of an apprentice.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, pledged to create 100,000 more apprenticeship places.

Leading article, page 28.

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