Imperial court of post-16 supremo

Jane Williams, the new standards tsar, is fighting fit. Ngaio Crequer reports

Jane Williams, just appointed the post-16 standards tsar, may seem to have an unenviable job.

Like her imperial Russian namesakes she has to carve a way through competing factions at court (Learning and Skills Council, Adult Learning Inspectorate, Office for Standards in Education, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority); keep the merchants happy (CBI, skills sector councils); get things done through a vast, complex and inefficient bureaucracy (the LSC); ensure that firm action is taken when things go wrong at local level (close down the odd college); play close attention to the demands of higher authority (ministers and No 10 - the real tsar had the Orthodox church and God).

In fact Ms Williams, currently the principal of the City of Wolverhampton College, says she found the job irresistible.

"It was a big decision to leave here. But it is irresistible because there is a strong message coming through that teaching and learning post-16 is a major part of the national agenda."

She is well placed to understand the standards debate. She was principal of Wulfrun College when it merged with the ill-fated Bilston Community College, once described as the worst in the country.

She headed the new college, Wolverhampton, and she (and her governors) are delighted with the progress that has been made.

"Student numbers have risen by 25 per cent over the past two years. Both our adult achievement, and that for 16 to 18-year-olds, is above the national average. We have had a managed process of convergence, and everything is on track."

Ms Williams, 49, takes up her job as director of teaching and learning at the Department for Education and Skills after Christmas.

It is still to be decided whether her unit will be based in London or Sheffield, but she does not intend to relocate her family, including a 17-year-old daughter at sixth-form college, and a 10-year-old son.

She is an English and Russian graduate of Bristol University who spent her early career teaching English in secondary schools. She says she "fell into" further education when she volunteered to teach adults basic skills. Since then she has spent 25 years in FE as a teacher, running staff development programmes, as a senior manager, and latterly as a principal.

She does not want to irritate by being too vague about her job, but she says that at the beginning she wants to listen - to the LSCs, to the Association of Colleges, to the inspectors and to the unions.

Her job includes ensuring proven teaching methods are adopted in colleges, so there is adequate support for basic skills, and working with the Further Education National Training Organisation to introduce a major programme of training and professional development for teachers.

"It is a championing role. I want to galvanise people and co-ordinate things. I want to get the best brains together and promote the best good practice."

She recognises that the creation of her job indicates to some that something has to be done about standards in FE. She says: "FE has a mixed reputation. There have been problems but also some great triumphs. There is much that we can share and celebrate."

She blames the press for delivering the message that ministers are concerned about standards. "When you actually read the speech you get a more balanced picture. The department wants to celebrate excellence as much as it wants to eradicate weakness. But I want to be straightforward about things when they are not good enough."

She wants to develop a culture where people are not afraid to recognise weakness or failure. "It is best to talk about it and then turn it round.

"Two or three years ago at Wolverhampton there were big issues about student performance and achievement. We had lots of 'critical friends', people from other colleges giving advice. We just got stuck in. If you get the culture right you can do it."

She is certainly ambitious. "We have a chance to do something quite transformational about the learning experience."

Tsars failed to exercise enough authority and were replaced by Stalin, who turned the farms into collectives and liquidated the peasants. This analogy had better end.

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