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Eight key steps to skills happiness

You are going to have to compete to succeed, warns Chris Hughes.

The new order becomes clearer by the day. Since last autumn we have been speculating on the detail of the new legislation that will change the world in which we operate. Now we have it: the Learning and Skills Bill, the Explanatory Notes, the Prospectus, the Funding and Allocations Document. Collectively, they point to a more diverse and customer-centred sector operating under the ever watchful eye of the Learning and Skills Council.

The council's remit is now also clear. The giant funding and planning quango will have a hand in shaping the learning and skills market at every level. Nationally, it will drive up quality and standards and drive up innovation; locally, the network of learning and skillscouncils will develop the provider infrastructure and manage the local market with the needs of employers in mind. And, individually it will discuss and agree plans with FE colleges and training providers.

With the publication of the Education and Training Bill, the speculation can end. We may be still missing the vital consultation document on quality but can begin to plan for our near future. However, the changes will happen. Riots in the streets and hunger strikes protesting at the proposals for inspection are unlikely to change minds. Time now for colleges to prepare their learning and skills action plans. Here are my eight steps for happiness on that front.

1 Review your mission. If it promises to do everything for everybody and with high quality, then scrap it. A more diverse sector needs more diverse missions: that is colleges need to consider, especially if they are a general FE institution, a more focused role. What is your role in the scheme of things? The trick will be focusing on what you are good at. It doesn't mean forgetting about the rest of your provision, but it does mean building a reputation for excellence.

2 Assess the potential for local structural change. Is the local education authority likely to use the new power to create 16-19 centres? What are the implications of external institutions becoming free- standing? Conduct role-play meetings of management teams in neighbouring colleges and training providers. Try and see the future from their point of view.

3 Think allocations. It is the new rock and roll! If funding dominated the discourse from 1993 to 2000, the allocation process ill be the debate for the early years of the 21st century.

4 Rethink quality. It is much more than preparing for inspection. Your local learning and skills council will have serious quality responsibilities, money to support quality improvement and a specific role to set rigorous thresholds before providers are eligible for funding. Quality will be one thing that will set colleges aside from all the other providers. In the new market we will need to offer high-quality provision to compete.

5 Think big and imaginatively about the adult curriculum. There are exciting possibilities with the end of schedule 2 and funding by qualification units. Look too for new partnerships with colleagues in community education or the work-based route. This is the right time to increase the impetus behind proposals for the new College Diploma - a prestigious qualification, aimed at adults who can work towards it in their own time and at their own pace. It will help define FE colleges and give us a unique position on the new education and training map.

6 Find experienced principals. Those who worked in large multi-college local education authorities after the 1988 Act are the best historic analogy I can think of for the new planning environment of local learning and skills councils. Dust off your old files about clearing houses to deal with low entrants and maximising class sizes. Don't forget they hardly ever worked.

7 Set up a college compliance unit. You are entering a zero tolerance of failure zone.

8 Learn from others experiences. All the changes the Learning and Skills Bill (and the associated proposals) will bring about put me in mind of Jersey Business School, part of Highlands College. It is a major partner in the island's finance industry. Qualifications directly linked with the needs of the offshore finance community have been developed: the Certificate in Offshore Administration and the Jersey Money Laundering Certificate (it is an anti-money laundering qualification - honest!!). Large parts of the qualifications are delivered by visiting lecturers who are visitors from industry. This work and the college are seen as integral elements of Jersey's economic development. Demand led? Yes. Partnership? Yes. Raising standards? Yes. Could this be a microcosm for the future of further education?

Chris Hughes is chief executiveof the Further Education Development Agency

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