Seven years ago this week, Labour unveiled its vision for further education. By putting the Learning and Skills Council in charge of colleges, sixth forms and private training firms, ministers promised higher post-16 standards – regardless of where young people and adults study.
But now Labour is about to rip up this system. Within two years, the LSC will cease to exist and colleges will rely on local authorities to fund pre-19 courses, and arrange for other bodies to pay for everything else.
The writing was on the wall for the LSC as soon as Gordon Brown split the Department for Education and Skills in two after becoming Prime Minister. Now, more detailed proposals in last month's White Paper have left colleges bemused and even a little angry.
"It's a complete dog's breakfast," says Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management. "The whole thing will end in a mess. Colleges want a single point of contact with government in the same way as higher education."
Colleges calculate that, in future, they could face five different sources of funding, including a new Skills Funding Agency (for most adult courses) and the National Apprenticeship Service, another new body. Those offering degrees will turn to the Higher Education Funding Council, while the Government is proposing to introduce skills accounts to help people pay for their own courses.
Since 2001, the LSC has not enjoyed the warmest relationship with colleges, and is frequently accused of being too bureaucratic. But many colleges do work successfully with their local LSC and are concerned that the re-emergence of local authorities in post-16 education could threaten the independence they have enjoyed since leaving council control in 1993.
Ioan Morgan, principal of Warwickshire College, says that further education appears to be facing more change and uncertainty than any other sector. "I think the LSC will be missed more than many colleges realise," he says. "It has always been good at getting money into colleges."
David Collins, principal of South Cheshire College, doubts that the LSC's demise will be greeted with delight. "There are dangers of local political interference and perhaps the diversion of money from a college to a small school sixth form to appease a local pressure group," says Collins, president of the Association of Colleges.
By scrapping the LSC and splitting its budget, ministers are essentially admitting that there is no longer a post-16 sector as such. From 2010, local authorities will spend £7bn a year on courses in FE colleges and sixth forms – including 14-19 diplomas. Meanwhile, £4bn is going on adult training, under the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills.
The proposals have led to speculation that colleges will focus on either pre-19 or adult education. "Many colleges will be looking at whether they should be in one camp or another," says Collins.
This move would alarm lecturers, as it could mean staff on separate pay scales and conditions of service. Barry Lovejoy, head of FE at the University and College Union, is concerned at the prospect of fragmentation, but says that local-authority involvement in 16-19 education should help to close the funding gap between sixth forms and colleges, and the pay gap between teachers and lecturers.
Although the Conservatives pledged to abolish the LSC at the last election, they are critical of the proposals. "The new arrangement is convoluted and likely to be inconsistent and costly," says John Hayes, the shadow Minister for Vocational Education .