The government's tough new interventionist stance on "failing colleges" could fall foul of the law, college leaders have warned.
Announcing a Pounds 725 million two-year cash settlement for the sector, education secretary David Blunkett told the Association of Colleges' annual conference last week that the cash would come with menaces. Colleges judged to be failing would be subject to "dramatic action against them" including takeovers and the removal of senior management.
"It is clear that 10 per cent of the sector is under-achieving," Mr Blunkett said.
But the kind of action he described may be unconstitutional, warned John Brennan, AoC policy chief. "We recognise the importance of raising standards and lifting quality and we will work with the government to achieve it. But support for that would not extend to new interventionist measures," he said.
The secretary of state's powers are limited under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act to a last-resort authority which can be used "in the event of mismanagement or breach of duty" to replace one or more governors. The minister has no formal powers to remove principals, said Dr Brennan. The AoC was still seeking to clarify the exact nature of Mr Blunkett's comments.
Any move towards the kind of intervention suggested by Mr Blunkett, would require primary legislation, college leaders believe. The Department for Education and Employment this week confirmed that no new legislation was planned. "The principles of school improvement will be extended to colleges without a change in the law," said a spokeswoman.
The AoC has also warned against too hasty an approach to the government's second key quality improvement strategy - the compulsory obligation for teachers in further education to gain formal qualifications.
Mr Blunkett announced a standards fund, with Pounds 35 million in 1999-2000 and Pounds 85 million in 2000-2001, to ensure that lecturers gain teaching qualifications.
The new Further Education National Training Organisation, launched last week, will link with the Further Education Development Agency to "provide skills and training necessary for tutors and lecturers", said Mr Blunkett.
About 30 per cent of college lecturers do not have formal teaching qualifications. Mr Blunkett said the aim was for everyone in FE to have a teaching qualification.
The AoC supported the move but warned that recruitment could suffer if qualifications were made a prerequisite of entry. It suggested that new entrants be given five years to gain teaching qualifications.
The DFEE said detailed comments would be issued to colleges shortly.