Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 25 of Session 2005-06, dated 16 February 2006


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"The further education sector is very complicated and overly bureaucratic. The Department for Education and Skills should work with the Learning and Skills Council and all the different bodies involved to rationalise responsibilities and simplify structures. Money spent on administrators duplicating each other's work is money which fails to reach the frontline delivery of education and training.

"FE colleges are also subject to a lot of different types of audit and inspection. Surely everyone would applaud the appointment of a single organisation, such as the NAO, to commission and coordinate the audits.

"Some 35 colleges are not performing satisfactorily. They damage the reputation of the further education sector. The taxpayer should not have to support continuing failure. In such cases, local learning and skills councils should shift funding to better performing colleges or consider supporting mergers with better managed colleges.

"More employers need to engage in training if the UK is to be economically competitive. In the longer term the government expects employers and learners to contribute more to the cost of training. Colleges will have to offer the courses which employers and learners want and for which they are prepared to pay. They will therefore have to be more attuned to learners' career aspirations and the needs of business. They will also have to develop workable fees policies to help make less commercial courses sustainable."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 25th Report of this Session, which examined the progress made in improving the arrangements for planning, funding and monitoring expenditure on learning and skills.

The learning and skills sector is complex, involving many different organisations including 397 colleges (further education colleges, sixth-form and specialist colleges, which collectively form the further education sector) and many private providers. Planning, funding and monitoring the quality of provision are the responsibility of the Learning and Skills Council. The Council's budget in 2003-04 was £8.8 billion, of which more than half went to colleges teaching some four million learners a wide range of academic qualifications, work-based learning and personal and community learning.

Colleges are autonomous bodies, but they need to take account of local, regional and national priorities for education and training. The Learning and Skills Council's programme Agenda for Change is taking forward a number of reforms, including simplifying the funding arrangements, improving the quality of provision and working more closely with employers. National priorities for post-16 education and training are especially important factors in allocating the Council's budget. The focus on these priorities was further emphasised in recent guidance announcing a rebalancing of public and private contributions to the cost of education and training. The announcement will affect colleges' decisions about how much non-priority provision they can offer unless they are confident of securing contributions from employers or learners. They will need to demonstrate clearly to employers and learners the value of any fee contribution. More colleges need to become more adept at providing businesses with the training they want. Colleges that provide a poor quality service to learners impair the sector's reputation and the Learning and Skills Council needs to address these weaknesses.

To help colleges and other learning providers improve their capacity, the Learning and Skills Council needs, through its current restructuring, to streamline its functions and reduce administrative costs to free up more money to be spent at the front line on learners. Colleges' audit arrangements should be simplified and self-regulation actively developed among high-performing colleges.

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