One of the key challenges facing further education colleges in the coming years is to improve the quality of education and training and to ratchet up student achievement and stay-on rates.
The question is how do you encourage a culture of continuous improvement within the sector as a whole and more particularly within individual institutions?
This summer the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said the variation in levels of student achievement was "very disturbing" and called on the Further Education Funding Council to help the worst-performing colleges.
The council subsequently published data allowing colleges to compare pass rates and staying-on levels. It will shortly issue guidance to colleges on the principles that should underpin target-setting.
After five years of restructuring and shedding staff, Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the Association of Colleges, believes that a leaner and more efficient further education sector is now well-placed to help create a culture of lifelong learning in a new era of optimism and growth.
However, she also points out that one of the most crucial challenges facing the sector is the need to encourage a culture of continuous improvement. The AOC envisages several factors working together to encourage this.
One key factor will be the development of clear standards for teachers. Unlike in schools, there has never been a systematic review of the qualifications and standards for teachers and learning support staff. Despite this, 80 per cent of FE teaching staff hold some form of teaching qualification.
Now, for the first time, further education is to have its own training group - FENTO (Further Education National Training Organisation) which will provide a strategic framework for raising education and training standards in FE.
The training organisation, which is about to receive government approval,will be formally launched at the AOC's annual conference at Harrogate next month. Its predecessor body, the Further Education Staff Development Forum, has been working on a set of lecturer standards to underpin all qualification routes into FE teaching. FENTO will also assist the sector in developing standards for managers, governors and support staff.
Judith Norrington, AOC curriculum director, says that what teachers need is initial training that better reflects the range of tasks they must perform. Continuing professional development is also needed for people who come in from industry to teach part-time.
However, the quality of provision will also depend on the calibre of the colleges. It is here that the funding council's wish to see colleges become self-evaluating, self-critical and masters of their own self-improvement will play a crucial role.
Having successfully broken free from their former local education authority masters and become autonomous institutions, the colleges are now seen as mature enough to move from being self-assessed to being an accredited institution. Accredited status gives colleges the freedom to develop training standards. Models of excellence from these colleges will be published by the funding council and FENTO.
Although no college has yet become accredited, the FEFC has set the broad criteria for becoming accredited and these include having high inspection grades for the curriculum, management, quality assurance and governance.