Martin Whittaker reports.
When the National Assembly for Wales celebrates its first anniversary this month, some will regard its achievements so far with a jaundiced eye.
Nationally, the profile of Welsh devolution has not been good: there was the debacle over first secretary Alun Michael's departure and, more recently, wrangling over the escalating costs of the Assembly's new home. In February The Western Mail, Wales's national daily newspaper, slammed the new body, arguing that "even allowing for its limited powers, the Assembly has achieved very little".
This is not a view likely to be shared by the further education sector in Wales. At the end of the first year of devolution, the mood is upbeat. Colleges generally feel it has helped them become part of a growing agenda to improve the region's economic development. More than ever, they feel they have an open forum and that they can influence policy in a way that must make English colleges rather envious.
Cardiff-based education marketing consultant Ann Lancett says: "The beautiful difference in Wales is that if the funding council or the education system do anything totally bizarre, you can get on the phone to somebody in the National Assembly and say: 'Hang on a minute. Are you serious?' A month later another circular will come out when it's been amended.
"If you do that in England, nothing happens."
One of the Assembly's first jobs has been to endorse a shake-up in post-16 education and training in Wales. The Education and Training Action Plan (ETAP) was launched in March last year and was hailed by then Welsh Office minister Peter Hain as "groundbreaking", a move which would give Wales the lead in education and training.
The action plan is now part of the Learning and Skills Bill, expected to receive Royal assent this summer. Broadly, it involves the creation of a National Council for Education and Training in Wales, which will have a funding role, of numerous community consortiums to deliver education and training at the local level, and of a careers service for Wales.
Jenny Randerson, the Liberal Democrat Assembly member for Cardiff Central, who was formerly an FE lecturer and cross-departmental manager, says devolution has finally given Wales's 28 colleges a voice. Almost a third of Assembly members have some background in education, and education providers - especially the colleges' organisation Fforwm - have very quickly become adept at lobbying them. Randerson says the lobbying she received over the ETAP reforms was "phenomenal", even though she is not on the Assembly's post-16 education committee.
"Potentially, colleges are going to be a great deal better off, both financially and in terms of their strategic position," she says. "For years colleges were the Cinderella service. They didn't have any political lobby working for them at all. Now the action plan report pts them on a level footing with all the other organisations providing post-16 education and it gives them a much stronger say."
The Assembly has also brought an improved financial outlook for colleges, after years of under-funding. Prior to devolution, more than half of them were expecting to be in deficit by 2000-2001. Last year the Assembly earmarked an extra pound;840 million for education over the coming three years, with a substantial share going to further education. According to the Welsh funding council, forecasts from colleges "depict a sector with increasing financial strengths".
Despite the support given to the action plan, there are still concerns, such as how the concept of community consortiums - the proposed means of delivering education and training at local level - will serve the diverse urban and rural areas of Wales.
Coleg Glan Hafren in Cardiff is already collaborating with eight secondary schools, recruiting students into GNVQ programmes - a scheme which pre-empts the proposed community consortiums. While this scheme works well in an urban setting, there are doubts as to how it would work in rural Pembrokeshire, for example, where a school and college could be 35 miles apart.
Jonathan Morgan, the Conservative Assembly member for South Wales Central, voted against the concept of community consortiums. He believes that imposing 15 consortiums across 22 local authority areas in Wales will be overcomplicated.
"It seems rather messy. I have to ask whether FE principals and FE managers, along with headteachers, are going to want to spend time sitting around a table nattering to each other."
He is also critical of the devolution settlement, which he believes left the Assembly's post-16 committee overburdened with arts, culture, Welsh language and sport issues. "FE will get very little hearing this year at all. We've got the arts review which will be completed in June or July. We've then got the summer recess until September. Then we're into our next major review, which is higher education, which goes on until February or March next year. So in terms of big-scale projects, I think FE has had its run for the time being."
Another question is whether, for good or ill, Welsh colleges are moving away from their English counterparts.
There has also been some business community criticism of ETAP on the lack of business influence on the community consortia. Fforwm chief executive Kevin Fisher says such criticism is "misplaced". "Absolutely no way will any college be part of a provision set up that isn't meeting local business needs. The way FE is trying to align itself in Wales is all about underpinning economic development but, at the same time, meeting the themes of ETAP, which are around community development and social inclusion.
"In a year, we've come a long way. The sector is repositioning itself for its own good, but with the main aim of making a contribution to meeting business need. That's the key message we're trying to get across."