The Pounds 5bn super agency

July 2, 1999

This week David Blunkett unveiled ministers' plans for a new post-16 education and training system. THES reporters analyse the details.

The 80-page Learning to Succeed white paper sets out a completely new framework for post-16 learning.

Education secretary David Blunkett said he wanted to build on what has worked best, yet the scale of the reforms suggest more of a clean slate approach.

The Further Education Funding Council is swept away and Training and Enterprise Councils are effectively scrapped and deprived of their Pounds 1 billion annual budget. Ofsted gets control of inspections for all 16 to 19 education and training, and a new adult education inspection body is to be formed.

Such radical alteration was required because, according to the white paper, the present system is failing too many people. Mechanisms for planning and funding are, according to the white paper, complex, inconsistent and confusing. They are too bureaucratic and have too many levels of administration. Mr Blunkett said the present system reminded him of a Soviet-style economy where, albeit in a non-corrupt way, everyone takes their cut at every level.

Underpinning the reforms are six key principles. They include promoting excellence and participation, giving employers a substantial stake in shaping post-16 provision, equal access, learner access to support which is mainly advice and guidance (the white paper does not recommend extending the student loans system) and accountability, efficiency and probity. The overall goal is a system that responds to the needs of learners rather than institutions and which takes account of the skills required by employers.

Shining brightest in the new firmament is the super funding agency: the national Learning and Skills Council. With a budget of around Pounds 5 billion a year, including the FEFC's Pounds 3.5 billion and TECs' Pounds 1 billion, it will be responsible for the education and training of around five million people a year.

The government estimates that the new system will save Pounds 50 million a year in bureaucracy. Yet for all this the new system has many parts. At the top is the hugely powerful national council. Holding the strings to a purse containing Pounds 5 billion will require a significant central bureaucracy. There are no estimates for the numbers of staff involved although it can safely be assumed that it will need significantly more than the FEFC's 330 non-inspection workforce.

Cash will flow from the council to the providers, mainly further education colleges and sixth-form colleges (but not school sixth forms). In this sense there is little change from the present FEFC funding mechanism, except quantatively. There is, however, a massive qualitative difference. The council has responsibility for central planning way beyond the current FEFC remit.

But it is hoped that this hugely centralised operation will be moderated by the input of a range of existing bodies such as the Regional Development Agencies and by the 40 to 50 sub-regional Local Learning and Skills Councils. They are essentially outposts of the central body, giving it ears closer to the ground.

Critics, including the Conservatives, believe the reforms are little more than centralisation. Far from building on the best of the existing system, they believe Mr Blunkett has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Optimists say that it is about time that government took a disparate, inefficient yet vitally important sector by the scruff of the neck.

LEARNING AND SKILLS COUNCIL

A new Learning and Skills Council for England will oversee post-16 education, excluding higher education. However, it will work with the Higher Education Funding Council for England and universities and colleges to encourage progression into higher education where appropriate.

The council will be responsible for planning, funding and managing post-16 education and training, plus providing quality assurance. It will take over funding further education from the Further Education Funding Council; publicly-funded training and workforce development from the Training and Enterprise Councils; and adult and community learning from local authorities. Its total budget will be around Pounds 5 billion.

Employers will have a much bigger say in the work of the council, which is due to be established by April 2001, than they did with its predecessors. The council will have a membership of around 15 people. Employers will form the largest single group. Other members will have backgrounds in education or training.

There will be two committees of council, responsible for people aged 18 years and under, and adult learners.

The Young People's Learning Committee will ensure that young people learn in ways that improve their employability and contribute to their personal development. It will advise the council on the funding and delivery of A levels, AS levels, general non-vocational qualifications, national vocational qualifications and other training provision. The committee will also be charged with ensuring the successful transition of younger people into the next stage of education, training or work, "including any measures to promote progression into higher education where this is appropriate".

The Adult Learning Committee will look at raising and widening the participation and attainment of adults. The committee will encourage businesses to invest in their workforces. It will also seek to minimise the trauma for adults returning to learning, in order to reduce drop-out rates.

"We want to increase further the number of people who combine study with work, particularly in the 18 to 30 age group and at technician levels. We will be discussing these areas further with the higher education sector," states the white paper.

The government had considered whether to include higher education within the new learning and skills council, but decided against it because higher education has an international and national reach, as well as a regional and local role. Including higher education would also overly-complicate the council's remit, the government concluded.

SUB-REGIONAL FRAMEWORK

Local learning and skills councils are the tentacles of the new national council responding to the skills and learning needs of local labour markets and communities.

There will be up to 50 of them, each responsible for a county-sized area.

The white paper says their boundaries should fit with local travel-to-work and travel-to-study areas.

They will be responsible most importantly for drawing up targeted action plans. These will set out key challenges and objectives covering post-16 education and training in their areas. These plans must be submitted to the national council and will exist as part of the national framework as set down by the council and the government.

To assist in drawing up such action plans the local councils will build up accurate profiles of their areas that would include rates of participation in learning and the relative performance of providers in terms of value added and value-for-money. They will also produce assessments of local skills needs in consultation with key local and regional partners. These would include local learning partnerships, the University for Industry and regional development agencies.

While the vast bulk of the funding flows directly from the national council straight to providers, the sub-regional bodies will have small discretionary budgets to help encourage and support, for instance, new approaches by small companies to workforce development.

The local councils will also be responsible for ensuring the quality, standards and probity of the bodies it funds. They must ensure thorough and prompt investigation of any concerns about the quality of provision within their areas. They will propose and help broker college mergers within a national framework. They could be tasked with preparing annual prospectuses of post-16 opportunities in their areas to be distributed to everyone approaching 16.

Membership will be broadly along the lines of the national council with employers forming the single largest grouping. Trade unions will also be represented along with others representing the social economy. Chairs will be influential people in their local areas and be appointed by the secretary of state. Members will be appointed by the national council. Each local council will have an executive director.

It is also seen as critical that the local councils work closely with the local learning partnerships that represent what is left of the Training and Enterprise Councils, employers, colleges and local authorities. The idea is to create a "family" of organisations working together to meet learning and skills needs. But basically, the local councils will look to the learning partnerships for advice.

QUALITY

The white paper calls for "a major drive to raise standards in post-16 provision as we have done in schools".

To do this, it intends to rationalise the existing inspection systems, leaving Ofsted in charge of inspecting education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds in schools and colleges and the Youth Service and creating a new independent inspectorate for post-19 provision in colleges, work-based provision for all age groups, adult and community education and UfI courses.

The two inspectorates will be expected to work together where appropriate and all inspections will be based on a common framework.

Both inspectorates will have to advise the Learning and Skills Council on action plans and monitor providers that are causing concern.

The new council will be responsible for the quality of any body it funds and for responding to complaints, rewarding high quality and taking firm action where standards fall short.

The Further Education Funding Council already has new powers to appoint extra governors at a college judged to be falling below standard.

Now the government wants local learning and skills councils to be able to propose closing sixth forms that do not improve. The school organisation committee, and in case of disagreements, the schools adjudicator, would consider the proposals, under guidance from the secretary of state. The ultimate sanction for private training providers would be withdrawal of council funding.

The government has pledged to take the lead in developing qualifications for all post-16 teaching and training staff, seeking consistency between standards set for further education colleges and work-based training, where appropriate.

It has also asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to make rationalising the number of qualifications on offer a priority and says it will endorse new criteria for qualifications below degree level "within a matter of weeks".

The QCA is also to ensure that young people on work-based training take vocational qualifications covering the theory of their occupational area.

The learning and skills council is to fund units of qualifications for adult learners, making it easier for them to take small steps towards a qualification or to select units from different qualifications.

LEARNING SUPPORT

The new Learning and Skills Council for England (LSCE), through its 50 local satellites, will have a major role to play in adult education, taking over responsibility for planning and funding adult information, advice and guidance services from 2001.

The government plans to introduce legislation that would give the council the national duty to arrange "adequate and sufficient" adult and community learning provision. The legislation would also give local authorities the "changed duty to contribute" to arrangements for provision at the local level. Once this legislation has been passed the government proposes to shift quickly from the local authority block grant to the LSCE funds related to adult education. On the unemployment front, the government plans to simplify arrangements for work-based training for the jobless by transferring this responsibility from Training and Enterprise Councils to the Employment Service. The changeover comes into effect in 2001. A new support service aimed at preventing the "disengagement" of young people from education and the world of work is to be announced next month. Details of the new service are to be set out in a report by the Social Exclusion Unit on 16-18 year olds not in education. The government estimates there are more than 160,000 - one in 11 of the age group - not in learning or work, a proportion that has remained virutally the same since 1994.

The creation of the New Youth Support Service will mean a shake-up of the Careers Service, parts of the Youth Service and a range of other specialist agencies.

The government is also planning to announce an enhanced strategy, called Connexions, for making sure that far more young people continue in education and training until they are at least 19.

Reporting by Alan Thomson, Harriet Swain, Alison Goddard, Kam Patel and Jennifer Currie.

TIMETABLE

Summer 1999 Publication of white paper.

Consultation paper outlines the new structure for post-16 learning and a two-year timetable for the transition.

Autumn 1999 Consultation period ends.

Boundaries of local Learning and Skills Councils andSmall Business Service areas proposed and finalised.

Location of the national Learning and Skills Council announced.

Summer 2000 Appointment of the chairand chief executive of the national Learning and Skills Council.

Learning and Skills Council staff recruited.

Winter 2000 The secretary of state announces the amount of grant in aid in a letter ofguidance to the Learningand Skills Council.

Staff training, with opportunities for retraining wherenecessary.

April 2001 Learning and Skills Councils fully operational as anindependent organisation. TECs and the FEFC will go.

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