'Treat colleges like grown-ups'

Conservative skills spokesman calls for the abolition of the Learning and Skills Council and for the emphasis to shift away from the under-25s

The pound;10 billion Learning and Skills Council should be abolished and colleges given the right to regulate themselves, the shadow FE minister has said.

In his first public speech on skills, John Hayes said that it was not acceptable that pound;1bn of the funding body's budget failed to reach any of the organisations that provide training.

And he said that Government should stop "patronising FE and treat the sector as grown-up" rather than using 17 separate bodies to monitor it.

Speaking at London's City and Islington College on Monday, the shadow minister for vocational education said: "The more we trust FE professionals, the more they will innovate and excel.

"We could move to a system of self-regulation by stages, led by colleges that have demonstrated excellence under the existing regime. If a college delivers results, how it does so should principally be a matter for its governors, staff and students."

Mr Hayes claimed support for self-regulation was the central difference between the Tories and Labour in FE, because the Government has made little progress since Sir Andrew Foster proposed cuts to the number of monitoring organisations.

The LSC could be replaced with a simplified national funding body, along the lines of the former Further Education Funding Council, he suggested.

Local authorities should plan strategically for their areas, while employer-led sector skills councils would set the agenda for a demand-led system.

"Much of the current bureaucracy surrounding vocational education reflects Labour's dogmatic attachment to regionalisation," Mr Hayes said.

"A system that reflects the needs of specific business sectors across Britain and in specific locations is much more likely to be effective."

The 48-year-old, who trained as a teacher of history and English before entering business and politics, said the Government was also wrong to focus its effort on level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications for under 25s.

"Like dogs and Christmas, training isn't just for the under 25s - it's for life," he said. Research shows that qualifications for middle and senior managers have the biggest impact on productivity, he added.

FE should not be governed by a target culture, but by the need of employers for skills, Mr Hayes said. The Tories could give employers a statutory role in allocating resources and public funds may be handed to large companies to handle their own training.

Tom Bewick, chief executive of the creative and cultural sector skills council, congratulated the shadow minister for making the first speech on skills by a Conservative front-bencher for a decade.

But the lecturers' union said Mr Hayes paid little attention to the concerns of front-line workers, such as funding, pay and the ongoing industrial disputes.

Dan Taubman, national officer for the University and College Union, said the Tories needed to face up to their part in creating the problems in education today.

"I'm sorry he didn't mention the pound;60 million black hole left in funding, the deprofessionalisation of the workforce and the fact that many of the seven million adults without literacy skills and the 14 million without numeracy skills were educated in schools during the Conservatives'

rule," he said.

The union was also sceptical about plans to persuade employers to pay more of the costs of training the workforce.

Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges at the UCU, said: "Looking back as far as the First World War, there has always been an issue of a low-skilled workforce and how do you make employers face up to their responsibility.

They haven't paid for it so far and there's a big question over whether they will now."

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