Ministers are close to completing a national framework for post-16 inspection across schools, colleges, adult education and training providers.
Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the Department of Education and Employment, said it would reflect the demands of the education and training revolution envisaged in the Lifelong Learning Green Paper.
The Government wants to build on best practice and harmonise post-16 arrangements, he told a conference which was organised by the Further Education Development Agency to discuss the Green Paper.
Mr Bichard moved to reassure sceptics that the new framework would give colleges and others greater, not less, freedom and was a move away from the last Government's obsession with control. There needed to be partnership between all the providers and common procedures, he said.
"People are putting their time and effort and increasingly their personal financial resources into learning activities. They expect and should receive a quality product every time."
There were many examples of good practice in post-16 education and training, but all colleges had to show excellent performance and results with high achievement and retention rates.
Mr Bichard, said people needed to "roll back the habits of a lifetime" to change the learning culture.
He was pressed as to whether institutions would have sufficient freedom and flexibility to deliver the Government's programme. "One of the great challenges of government is to ensure that you can create innovation, within a framework of accountability," he said. "But we have overdone it, we have been obsessed with control. There is that constant tension and I recognise it. We do want to encourage innovation and initiative and we will try to push the boundaries of accountability back."
He warned that there was a long way to go to achieve a revolution in individual learning. There were still some 6.8 million employees without even a level 2 qualification (low-grade GCSEs). Some 700,000 people returned to the labour market each year with new training needs.
He said some people had suggested that the emphasis placed on individuals undervalued the role of colleges and other institutions. "Frankly that is rubbish. Colleges and other providers have the most important role of all and the good news is that there is a huge amount of good practice in the FE sector and elsewhere on which to build and that the Government recognises its responsibilities towards the institutions."
Professor Bob Fryer, chair of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, said the Green Paper provided the most comprehensive and progressive programme in Europe. He said it offered everyone the opportunity "to become a mini Secretary of State". It was up to each individual to set out their priorities and establish practical ways of achieving the vision contained in the Green Paper.
"The consultation is an invitation to take part in shaping the future of lifelong learning. If you don't respond and help in practical ways you will be responsible for the failure to begin the 'learning age' revolution. This has got to be a 'can do' Green Paper.
"Many people, to our shame, still associate learning with flight, fear and exclusion. We have to win their trust." He called on the Government to produce an action plan, with target dates and performance indicators, to monitor how much progress had been made.