New sub-regional bodies could call the shots in post-16 education as part of a fundamental restructuring of further education and training due to be announced by government next week.
It is thought that about 50 new bodies covering areas roughly the size of counties could take over the role of regional development agencies and local learning partnerships in planning post-16 education. Details are expected when the government's review of post-16 education is published.
The bodies would be key players in a restructured post-16 system. They would report to a new super-agency funding virtually all post-compulsory education and training outside higher education. The single funding agency is also set to be announced in the review. It would almost certainly be built on the foundations of the Further Education Funding Council.
Already there are concerns that the sub-regional bodies will have less individual clout than the nine RDAs, which could have been used to amplify regional issues. It is thought that the RDAs will merely advise the sub-regional bodies on the wider regional picture. This scenario has led to claims that the structure will increase government control.
Theresa May, the shadow education secretary, said: "It smacks of centralisation. It appears the government wants to create a new hierarchy that gives the impression of devolution when in fact it is being run from the centre."
Yet the further education sector argues that the new system could be more responsive to local needs. It is likely that the super-agency would fund colleges and other providers directly.
John Brennan, director of further education development for the Association of Colleges, said: "Full planning control at regional level could have involved sizeable and costly bureaucracy. It might also have led to nine different regional systems. Sub-regional bodies give the right amount of local feedback. The added benefit is that the new funding agency will also save on administration costs. The FEFC could just as easily fund 500 providers or 5,000 at relatively little extra cost."
Next week's review is also thought to recommend a separate inspection body for the post-16 sector. The government is thought to have rejected bids from schools' inspection body Ofsted and the Quality Assurance Agency, which ensures standards in universities. The post-16 body could be built on the existing FEFC inspectorate.
The review is unlikely to bring good news for training and enterprise councils. At present they have a budget of Pounds 1.3 billion a year and buy training from providers such as colleges. The post-16 review is thought to recommend that their budget be transferred to the funding agency. And as the sub regional bodies will take over planning, there might well be little left for the TECs to do.