White Paper fall-out

The fall out settles from the "Learning to Succeed" White Paper published at the end of June. A complicated - but flexible - transition plan is now being rolled out by the DfEE.

The Government's general approach is one of extreme care. But the abolition of TECs became dramatically real in mid July when they received a "termination letter" from the DfEE which announced that their contracts would finish by April 2001. The letter also imposed restrictions on their spending - particularly their use of accumulated reserves. Some TECs have previously shown little hesitation in turning to their Learned Friends for advice about ownership of their reserves. So we should shortly expect some arcane legal disputes that may distract TECs from some important tasks over their remaining 20 months.

Firstly, the Government needs to see its Learning Gateway services properly rolled out this September to ensure that disaffected 16 and 17 year olds are re-engaged back into education and training.

Next year also sees the first full flourish of Individual Learning Accounts which are the Government's main way of targeting lifelong learning to those on low incomes but also to ensuring that individuals have some real choices in their training - by putting "purchasing power" in their hands.

Most importantly, there are the Government's National Learning Targets which assume a rise from 74% to 85% of all 19 year olds possessing a level 2 qualification by 2002. This not going to be achieved by traditional education alone - some of those young people who will be 19 in 2002 have just left school this Summer. So the effective delivery by TECs of Modern Apprenticeships and National Traineeships is critical to Government ambitions. And as David Blunkett said candidly to the TEC chiefs in early July, his head is on the block.

And don't forget, April 2001 is a very sensitive political moment. Tony Blair could well be kicking off an election campaign just as the TECs hand over to the Learning and Skills Council.

Many TECs are thinking about their futures. Some will metamorphose into Small Business Service franchisees. The big city TECs like Manchester and Birmingham - in partnership with their fairly supportive City Councils - will probably consolidate a number of economic development functions and turn into mini-RDAs. Some might try to transfer their staff en-bloc to become the secretariat for a local Learning and Skills Council. A few will downscale and try to become training providers. Others will just wither away.

The DfEE will have to ensure that those with survival ideas do not let their own future distract them from delivery. And the Government Offices should hire a few smart accountants to make sure the TECs do not squirrel away their surpluses - not least because about half of the balance sheets of TECs consist of fixed assets not ready cash.

TECs have got to stop moaning about their fate and get on with the job. Even those that will wind up need to remember they are going through a process that is common in other spheres. In the private sector it's called mergers and acquisitions. Viewed through public sector eyes, it is reminiscent of yet another local government reorganisation.

Yet some TECs could just crash. There is a danger that depletion of skilled staff might cause a seize up. So, the DfEE should start some discrete contingency planning and perhaps create a liquidity fund to tie over contracted providers if anything goes belly-up.

"Learning to Succeed" also announced - with alarmingly little detail - that Work based learning for Adults (WBLA) will transfer to the Employment Service from April 2001. In mid July, Blunkett said that he wants "a more effective service for unemployed adults, which is part of an integrated suite including the New Deals and the new ONE service for benefit claimants." This core message of justification for the transfer needs to be transmitted loudly, clearly and systematically - not least to many of those organisations running the programme presently.

The ES needs to embark on some very careful pre-planning. Ideally, the DfEE should prepare a design framework for a revised programme following a period of consultation - just as it did when designing the New Deal. Nor should it rush into a hasty handover. It might draw on the conclusions about basic employability training that are emerging from New Deal. And it could evaluate some early lessons from the Employment Zone pilots. It might also integrate a "new WBLA" within the revised framework for part-time study which the White Paper has promised.

A key part of the Government's strategy for competitiveness and inclusion is in the hands of organisations that are shortly to go out of business. So, Ministers need plenty of bold leadership and display a clear vision of the future under the Learning and Skills Council and a rejuvenated Employment Service.