Lord Lingfield's review of professionalism in the sector has endorsed the creation of an FE guild to set professional standards, which will be led by the employer bodies for colleges and training providers.
But his final report, which was published on Tuesday, ranged much more widely. It proposed new powers for the guild, from rationalising the number of vocational qualifications to setting pay scales and replacing Ofsted inspection with peer review.
Convinced that the standing of FE professionals is affected by the public's difficulty in understanding the sector's role in the education system, Lord Lingfield has also sought to redefine FE. He suggested a shift away from remedial work on basic skills and the growth in provision for under-16s, instead seeking to define FE as primarily offering vocational skills to develop the workforce and economy.
"We believe that the devotion of so much public money and effort to duplicating work already undertaken in schools is wasteful," Lord Lingfield writes. "Remedial provision we hope to see gradually cease as a major function of FE, as soon as the government's current reforms make this practicable, leaving schools to deal more effectively with foundation skills."
The University and College Union warned that this ambition may be unrealistic. "Further education does need to be more clearly defined, but lopping off remedial education won't work in practice, as there will always be older students looking for a second chance to gain or improve qualifications," Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, said.
It would also require an enormous improvement in school performance in English and maths. Each year, 300,000 18-year-olds begin their adult life without English or maths GCSE or an equivalent. More than half of all learners fail to achieve level 2 by the time they leave school.
But Lord Lingfield, a former teacher and education reformer, said the guild had the potential to develop a single post-compulsory sector in FE, united with higher education and filling "the polytechnic-shaped hole" in the system, in a similar way to community colleges in the US.
His vision of FE as a post-compulsory sector meant he was critical of the expansion of 14-19 education in colleges, calling it "mission drift" prompted by the failures of schools.
The guild, which Lord Lingfield said would cover support staff as well as teachers, could be able to offer chartered status to colleges and training providers, with outstanding providers given greater freedom of operation and removed from the Ofsted inspection system in favour of peer review.
The report criticised inspection processes that focus on weak providers for failing to give the sector a picture of its overall capability or its progress over time. Instead it proposed a similar system to that used in universities, supported by the Quality Assurance Agency.
It also proposed an extension to the guild's remit, into rationalising the number of vocational qualifications to make them more easily understood by the public and employers. The panel argued that it was a logical extension of the guild's role in developing appropriate qualifications for staff working in the sector.
Lord Lingfield said the panel was struck by the "fearfulness" of FE teachers, who regarded the existing regulations on professionalism as offering "symbolic protection" against their jobs being downgraded. And with good reason, as the report outlined how pay for FE lecturers had declined from between 10 and 15 percentage points above schoolteachers to between 6 and 8 percentage points below, with the turning point occurring in about 2001.
At the same time, his report said staff were increasingly working on part-time contracts and teaching hours were rising. Lord Lingfield said he hoped the guild could provide a venue for pay negotiations "freed from the adversarial pressures of workplace negotiation", although it is unlikely to address the economic pressures on salaries.
Proposals for a "covenant" - based on the government's pledge to the armed forces - establishing the duties of employers and staff towards each other could also address conflict over issues such as lesson observations, one of the requirements expected to be set down in the covenant. "The FE covenant is an interesting idea that could be good news for professionalism if it fulfils its promise of matching employee and employer obligations," Ms Hunt said.
Unlike the Institute for Learning (IfL), whose statutory role as the protector of FE professionalism it will replace, the FE guild will have no role in disbarring teachers for poor conduct. Lord Lingfield said that almost every case would be caught by criminal records checks, except over issues of competence, which IfL did not oversee.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), which will run the guild along with the Association of Colleges (AoC), said it also wanted to extend membership to providers that were not government-funded. "Together with the AoC and other partners, we have high ambitions for the guild working with colleges and independent providers to make the UK have the best FE and skills system in the world," said Graham Hoyle, AELP's chief executive.