Plans to improve colleges will fail unless the Government sorts out which quangos are responsible for different tasks, the man in charge of the quality strategy has warned.
Andrew Thomson, chief executive of the Quality Improvement Agency, this week insisted that the coming quality improvement strategy "must make very clear who does what among the national agencies to support a self-improving sector".
The strategy - the first-ever aimed at raising standards across FE - will be published by ministers later this month.
It comes 15 months after Ruth Kelly, the then education secretary, created the Quality Improvement Agency in response to concerns over standards.
At the time, ministers were accused of simply creating another body in quangoland. They insisted, however, that other organisations should pull out of "the overcrowded quality market" and leave the QIA to it. But there have been few signs of this happening.
Mr Thomson now wants his and other agencies to take clearly defined roles:
"This means inspectorates assess quality, the Learning and Skills Council funds and plans it, and the QIA supports and drives quality improvements in the sector," he said.
While the agency was invited by ministers to draft the improvement strategy, it will be up to the Government to define and limit the powers of the quangos.
Mr Thomson was due to spell out his plans for the way forward as FE Focus was going to press, in a speech to the first annual QIA conference in Birmingham.
In his speech, he goes further, stressing the need for all agencies to speak the same language. "We need to make sure we each mean and support the same things when advising on, influencing and assessing quality," he said.
The number of agencies with overlapping responsibilities for standards in colleges and other training providers has mushroomed over the past 10 years.
More than 6,000 people are employed by the LSC, Ofsted, the Adult Learning Inspectorate, Centre for Excellence in Leadership, Institute for Learning, Learning and Skills Network, QIA, Standards Unit and Lifelong Learning UK (one of 25 sector skills councils charged with setting industry training standards).
Nevertheless, Mr Thomson is optimistic that FE professionals will take charge of their own improvement. He said: "The big picture, for me, is that we need to develop the culture of continuous improvement from 'just complying with standards' to a culture of innovation and excellence. This means people not just dancing to the tune of inspectors but achieving better than that, by taking control for themselves."
He has also given a strong indication that the QIA will take a lead in making sure the various agencies work with greater "clarity and efficiency, avoiding duplication of effort and so saving money". He promised too that colleges and others would get the necessary support for self-improvement and closer partnership.
The best colleges, private providers and individuals were already doing much of what was required, and others wanted to improve, he said. "But sharing these ideas requires not just the will but the way."
The QIA was also creating three services to support self-help: the Excellence Gateway (a web-based resources bank whose launch was reported in FE Focus last week); improvement advisers to work with colleges in difficulty or asking for help; and peer support. The agency is running pilots and research to test peer support.
"Promoting self-improvement is a wise founding aim of the QIA," he said.
"It is a hard path to follow - setting out to achieve the best, not to avoid the worst: in other words, a world in which excellent rather than satisfactory is good enough."