Post-16 bill muddies waters

January 21, 2000

The future is far from certain for colleges under the proposed reform of post-16 education, college leaders have warned.

The Learning and Skills Bill, which had its second reading in the House of Lords this week, would give unprecedented and "unconstrained" powers of intervention to the new Pounds 6 billion funding quango, the Learning and Skills Council, said the Association of Colleges this week.

Ambiguities in the bill raised many questions and even left doubts about the legal position of colleges as learning providers.

The AoC broadly welcomed the bill but said it was concerned that "the devil might be in the missing details". In a circular to members, it listed 17 main issues of concern.

Key was the bill's provision of enhanced powers of intervention into college management by the secretary of state. He can sack governors and appoint new governors only if he is satisfied the college's affairs are being mismanaged, if it is failing to discharge its duties or if is is proposing to act "unreasonably".

But the bill allows intervention where a college receives an inspection report that suggests it is failing or has poor educational standards.

The bill also gives the LSC "apparently unconstrained" powers to appoint college governors. John Brennan, director of further education development at the AoC, said: "We would like to see some sort of limitation, for example, that it can only appoint governors when a college is failing."

The colleges say the bill leaves their legal status as corporations ambiguous. It sets out a college's legal power to establish a spin-off company, but in doing so makes the first legislative distinction between education and training.

Dr Brennan asked: "Does this mean that our only role is in education, as distinct from training? It is very hard to draw a distinction between education and training, and the law has previously never sought to do so."

Other concerns include:

Arrangements for national and local planning are "complex" and timetables are "tight"

There is a "lack of clarity" between the role of LSC and the Youth Support Service

There is no provision to deal with the personal liabilities of governors

There is a "lack of clarity" about the funding of provision not leading to externally approved qualifications

There is a "lack of clarity" about LSC responsibilities for quality improvement and development.

The bill got a mixed reception in the Lords. Former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker of Dorking said the "enormous tiers of quangos and interrelated bodies make Spaghetti Junction look like an open road". Baroness Platt of Writtle said the bill followed the government's "underlying motto of modernise first, centralise second, and think, a poor third."

The government is to introduce a disability in education bill, Baroness Blackstone announced during the learning and skills debate. The bill, to be introduced during this parliamentary session, will enable the implementation of recommendations of the Disability Rights Task Force, including the creation of a statutory code of practice on disability rights in further and higher education.

Dyslexia, pages 42-43

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