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Will it be too hot to quango?

As the Learning and Skills Council looks for a new chief, Ngaio Crequer takes the temperature of England's massive post-16 organisation.

"This job is not impossible" reads the advertisement for a new chief executive for the Learning and Skills Council.

Currently the job belongs to John Harwood, the man who, with chair Bryan Sanderson, took on the task of establishing the huge quango.

Mr Harwood's announcement last month that he was to quit a year before the end of his contract shocked many in FE. Soon government sources were speaking of a damaging clash of styles between chairman and chief executive.

His successor's task appears daunting, and the LSC's advert has not helped.

Its blurb highlights the fact that every school, employer, trades union, college, local authority, in fact everyone in the country, is a stakeholder in the council.

The council was created in 2001, representing the largest investment in a post-16 education and training quango the country has ever seen. It has an pound;8.1 billion budget, three times the amount the Lord Chancellor has to run the criminal justice system.

When Mr Harwood's replacement, what shape will she or he find the organisation in?

The LSC was the ambitious successor to the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils. It fused their functions, amending them and adding to them. It took on the politically challenging areas of funding and planning school sixth forms. Now there is to be a huge restructuring exercise which will involve shedding 500 of the 5,000 staff.

Ian Ferguson, chair of Data Connection and a member of the North London local learning and skills council, praises the LSC's achievements. "This is the first time we have had a management structure delivering, planning and funding education. If you look at the potential pitfalls we could have fallen into... the fact there have been no mess-ups is a huge achievement."

The LSC set itself challenging targets for 2004 - aiming for 80 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds to be participating in learning. So far it has reached 76.4 per cent.

It is set to exceed its adult basic skills targets. It is on course to meet its ambitious goal of 28 per cent of 16 to 21-year-olds signing up for a Modern Apprenticeship.

There has been a big interest in vocational GCSEs. But it is going to fail to get 85 per cent of young people reaching level 2 (GCSE equivalent) by the age of 19. The figure is static at around 75 per cent. At level 3 (A-level equivalent) it is going to be tough - the target is 55 per cent, and the current achievement level is 51 per cent. Adult attainment at level 3 is now 48.8 per cent and may not reach the target of 52 per cent.

"We have not given up on any of the targets," said David Russell, director of human resources and corporate services. "But some are more stretching than others."

The LSC was slow to make an impact on the business world. Last week, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that only half of respondents had had any contact with their local LSC.

Employer engagement has to be a vital ingredient in the LSC's strategy.

"Employer engagement - what's that?" asks David Gibson of the Association of Colleges. "Ringing 10 people a week, writing to them, or is it a breakfast? It should be what colleges do, regular meetings, a real relationship."

Small firms, in particular, survive in clusters, learning from their peers.

"The LSC has just got to go out and mix it," said one small businessman.

"Get in on the ground."

There are 47 local LSCs and some of them feel constrained by the national body in Coventry. Mr Ferguson is frank. "Forty-seven LSCs reporting to John Harwood ... that doesn't work. It has always been a problem. You cannot have any real management structure."

But the problems for business go beyond structure. "As an employer, I have nobody I can call who will advise me on the best way to deliver training to my employees. Business is disappointed that the LSC is not doing that."

The Confederation of British Industry says the time taken chasing information on training is a key barrier. James Foster, CBI policy adviser, said.

"Employers need information about the quality of training provision, not just what is available - a Michelin-type guide rather than a Yellow Pages."

"I agree that adults do not have enough information to make informed choices," said Mr Russell. "We have not done enough to sell the benefits of learning."

The LSC was intended to end turf wars and establish partnerships. Private training companies certainly felt there would be a level playing field for themselves and colleges. But they say the LSC still sees them as last in the pecking order. They were alarmed earlier this year when the LSC threatened the viability of some by seeming to want to reduce the number of directly contracted providers.

"We were told that any provider who could show capacity and quality would be treated fairly," said Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association for Learning Providers. "But it seems that money is still ring-fenced for the colleges."

The LSC has to deal with so many players that tensions are inevitable. It has fostered partnerships and collaboration. The best LSCs have 14-to-19 forums. Headteachers who have not talked to competing schools are now beginning to do so.

The feared closure of small school sixth forms has not materialised. But schools feel under-represented at national and local level, arguing that there is insufficient experience of their sector.

"We are anxious about the strategic area reviews," said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "There is a strong fear in some parts of the country that executive directors (in charge of local LSCs) favour an FE post-16 solution." He is also worried about the Government's intention to increase LSC powers in the 14 to 19 group.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, points to two separate reviews - in Cumbria and in Essex - which "magically" came up with the same number of students - 250 - below which a sixth form could not deliver. He says there is still a hidden agenda.

But the central criticism of the LSC is that it has failed to become the strategic leadership body for the sector. The charge is that it has failed to stand up to the Government and employers or to drive through positive change.

The LSC's role has never been fully clarified. The concentration on targets has become a distraction and many small business people do not know what the LSC does.

This failure is probably one that matters to Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary. The LSC now needs to find out where it is going under a new leader .

And who will prove that the chief executive's task is not impossible? Names in the frame include businessman Chris Banks, formerly of Coca-Cola, Chris Humphries (City amp; Guilds), Chris Hughes (Learning and Skills Development Agency) and Janice Shiner. The hot money is on Mr Banks.

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