The TECs are dead. Long live the TECs?

Ministers have settled on a course of action which has far-reaching consequences for the design, funding and delivery of all post-16 learning in England.

Note, incidentally, the growing tendency to discard the words "education" or "training" from the lexicon. When Ministers do this, it is not political correctness but a statement of the obvious.

Aside from the universities, within 2 years, there will be a single funding body for all educational and skills development activity - in England and Wales anyway. This "national skills agency" will hold a substantial budget and set a nationwide policy framework. It will relate to industry and occupational sectors via the National Training Organisations; and it will achieve geographically relevant delivery at a sub-regional level - with the recently established local learning partnerships as the preferred building block for the new infrastructure.

Will local learning parnerships hold a budget and contract with colleges and training organisations? Possibly not. Local partnerships will certainly have a planning and advisory role but are unlikely to fund the learning institutions. This is where the Regional Development Agencies should come in and Government Regional Offices exit the stage. And on the subject of winding up, the Further Education Funding Council has no logical future function either.

Ministers clearly want to push rapidly forward. Their approach was agreed at a Downing Street Seminar in late January where they decided to bring forward the strategy which underlies the March 9th Budget and which Brown described as economic growth driven by a "knowledge based economy".

So the Government wants a great leap forward. But this will not happen amidst what many respondents to the TEC review described as "incoherence and duplication". And a great raft of consultations, reviews and other exercises underway or recently completed have concluded that dramatic change is needed - like the Learning Age green paper, the Moser basic skills enquiry, the 2nd report from the Skills Task Force due in April and the Social Exclusion Unit report into disaffected 16 and 17 year olds.

Taken together, these represent a considerable amount of change and Ministers clearly want to avoid piecemeal amendment. The latest review points towards a consensus that further education and training should be brought together under one funding and policy umbrella. And there is also a growing realisation that - as New Deal becomes a more mature set of measures - other social inclusion programmes should be brought under the same management, funding and local delivery arrangements.

Blunkett's view was very clearly expressed during the Budget debate on March 11th when he said "that the system has been a mishmash of providers and funding streams. This Summer's review, he added, would "ensure that coherence is available right across the board". It would be an opportunity not just to improve the delivery of training for unemployed people but those in work too - like adult returners in further education and on more traditional courses. It would bring "coherence in the delivery of new skills and extend the information age to the have-nots."

All very good. The review will result in a more substantial statement of Government policy and be published as a White Paper during the Summer or early Autumn.It will then lead to legislation in Spring 2000.

One key aspect is employers. Blunkett's statement was explicit here. They want "new opportunities for business involvement" in further education, training and workforce development. This needs more than just a seat at the table. After all, the Tories encouraged business participation in training, regeneration and a host of other governmental bodies. But their activism lacked any real purchase. Although many employers found themselves on the boards of public ventures, their contribution was usually limited to governance and not the actual business of those institutions.

Many business leaders appear to have limited institutional loyalty towards the existing infrastructure. They just want their businesses to do better: to grow bigger, be more competitive, innovative and eventually more profitable.The people they employ are essential to this and most employers know it.

They want wholesale improvements - from basic skills taught in schools to genuinely relevent vocational training. They want training available in shortage-struck sectors - which employers accept they have to pay for. And they want the huge gap in basic and key skills to be addressed by the public sector.

They are tired of a training market that is dominated by the supply-side (institutions) not the demand side (employers and individuals). And although they are not very bothered about how it is organised, if they are going to pay more for it, they want some guarantees that the learning industry will stop squabbling, stop competing ineffectually and start delivering.

So anticipate a strong employer presence in a re-vamped version of local learning partnerships as they key local bodies - in many cases covering a more substantial geographical area than most TECs. Behind the scenes, TECs are being encouraged to re-invent their roles "unshackled" from the existing model.

But with the DTI designing a completely new Small Business Service - and rubbing out Business Links in the process - TECs may have precious little to offer their Local Learning Partnerships. A ten year period of history may be over.