Leader: Sharper focus is the way ahead for the colleges

April 25, 2003

Administrators have been trying for decades to construct a coherent system of further education in England and to link it as seamlessly as possible to schools and universities. Most have been defeated by the unwieldy nature of disparate networks of colleges, dogged by underfunding and sporadic interest on the part of politicians and the public. John Harwood, who is retiring unexpectedly early as chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, can claim some success on funding, but much remains to be done in other areas.

But can anyone pull off the variety of tricks expected of the LSC? David Blunkett, in a parting gift as education secretary, won agreement for the establishment of the council to prevent the separation of training from education. As a principle, this was surely right, but the price was the creation of a monolith with questionable expertise in some key areas. In some of the 47 local councils, staff transferred from the old training and enterprise councils are still on a learning curve where further and higher education is concerned. Local practice does not always mirror national policy.

The LSC has a daunting agenda, from an overhaul of the funding and regulatory system, introducing controversial targets and performance measures, to the implications of the government's skills strategy, which is expected in June. Add to that the continuing flux in post-16 qualifications, and the scope for good stewardship of the sector's growing interest in higher education is inevitably under strain. Yet, like any similar organisation, the LSC is reluctant to see its remit eaten away at the margins. Some college mergers with universities have been delayed while turf wars have been fought with the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The colleges' role in meeting the government's 50 per cent participation target is too important to be complicated by overlapping bureaucracies. In Scotland, the solution has been to merge the further and higher education funding councils, but the English systems are too large and the LSC too new to contemplate such upheaval in the short term. The eventual answer must surely be a regional structure that covers both further and higher education. In the meantime, ministers and the LSC itself should look again at the council's priorities before Mr Harwood's successor is appointed.

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