Training and enterprise councils, a legacy of Thatcherite Britain, could be abolished in their present form as part of a government overhaul of post-16 education and training.
Senior TEC officials are preparing themselves for "radical changes" under proposals to restructure lifelong learning. It is understood that a short consultation period will be followed in the summer by specific proposals. These will form the blueprint for lifelong learning beyond the next election, likely in 2002. The review excludes higher education.
Education secretary David Blunkett surprised TEC bosses last week when he effectively shelved the bulk of an anticipated report on the TEC strategic review. The report, announced last July, had been expected pre-Christmas. Mr Blunkett said he would "build on" the review.
In a letter to TEC chairmen, Mr Blunkett said: "Although there are changes we had been considering as part of the TEC review, which it would not now be sensible to implement until we publish our proposals in the summer, I do propose to make some changes to the operation of TECs/CCTEs (Chambers of Commerce Training and Enterprise)."
Mary Lord, director of education and training for the TEC National Council, which represents local TECs and CCTEs, said: "We were surprised the TEC review was extended in the way it has been but pleased that the government wants to take a look at the whole post-16 sector which grew up piecemeal.
"I think TECs have proved themselves to be flexible and are ready to evolve into something different. TECs have not become institutionalised and so we are not defensive about any institutional change that may follow. However, we are defensive about the best of what TECs have achieved."
TECs' strength is their ability to link individual learning requirements with employers' skills needs at a local level. Their combined national budget is about Pounds 1.3 billion, the vast bulk of which comes from the Department for Education and Employment. Most money is used to buy more than 400,000 training places from providers such as further education colleges. These include nearly 143,000 places for 16 to 24-year-olds, 133,000 modern apprenticeships and 1,000 adult work-based training places.
TECs also deliver the Investors in People awards to firms meeting rigorous staff development standards.
Ms Lord warned that reform of TECs would have to be sensitive to employers since they make significant contributions towards workplace training. These are "levered in" to training schemes by TECs.
The FE sector has for years complained that TECs are an inefficient and expensive way of delivering learning. A recent costs comparison study by the DFEE showed that the cost of an NVQ3 delivered through a TEC was estimated at Pounds 8,900 compared with Pounds 3,900 at a college. In addition, National Audit Office reports have highlighted DFEE overpayments to TECs. The Commons public accounts committee has uncovered mismanagement of funds by TECs.
The deadline for submissions to the lifelong learning review is April 30.