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Keep the tap turned on

The Government is committed to ambitious reforms for the post-16 sector. The unions' view of them is: fine - as long as the money is there to pay for proper staff training and as long as punitive schedules are not introduced to cover shortages. Ian Nash and Stephen Hoare report

While mulling over new ideas for teacher training reforms from grass roots lecturers, Dan Taubman recalls how different it all was in the 1990s. With a government big on competition and cost cutting in the name of efficiency, big ideas on teacher training and workforce development remained just that - big ideas - without the funds to develop them. The thought of consulting lecturers about the future of their training was unthinkable since politicians too often saw them as the enemy.

Then, in November 2002, when Natfhe, the trade union for lecturers in further and higher education, had all but given up on New Labour, along came Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, with the strategic report Success for All and a pound;1.2 billion three-year expansion plan for the sector.

"Natfhe had reservations about bits of the comprehensive spending review but we did pretty well," says Mr Taubman, the union's national colleges official. "What the discussion paper Learning to Succeed and then Success for All showed was that the Government was taking the learning and skills sector seriously. It is the route to so many good policies: [Mike] Tomlinson's work on assessment and qualifications [the former chief inspector is investigating the reform of A-levels], 14-19 reforms, higher education and foundation degrees and the wider skills agenda.

"They affect grass roots lecturers who had suffered 10 years of hard knocks, redundancies, increased workloads and deprofessionalisation."

For Mr Taubman, the part of the package that delivers the most punch is the work around Success for All themes 2 and 3 - the focus on teaching and learning and workforce development. Three strands, of initial teacher education, professional development and workforce development, are of a piece. He has been seconded to the Standards Unit at the Department for Education and Skills part-time to help develop the programmes.

The Government had set ambitious targets for training the FE workforce. By 2010, new entrants must be qualified to teach - 90 per cent of full-time and 60 per cent of part-time staff by 2005. Since September 2001, new full-time lecturers must qualify in two years and part-timers in four years.

Two reports last November highlighted key issues. One from the inspectorate team at Ofsted said lecturing was a profession in which isolated good practice and "fundamental structural weaknesses" co-exist. The second, from the Standards Unit, set out a strategy to improve the workforce. It said teacher education should be a vehicle for spreading best practice. It called for a three-year planning and funding system to help meet the needs of staff and colleges and improve choice.

Mr Taubman says: "The DfES report is moving us in the right direction. We have always wanted to see a fully professionalised, qualified workforce."

But there is also an urgent need for continuing professional development to improve the skills of older staff whose industry knowledge may be out of date. "Ten or 15 years ago this wasn't an issue, but with an ageing workforce and rapid technological change, staff can find themselves out of touch. There are areas of employment that are completely new."

There is also a need to rectify damage done in the 10 years since incorporation in 1993, when colleges were freed from local authority control and allowed to manage their own finances. "Scant attention was paid to human resources management," he says. "Full-time, fully qualified lecturers left or were forced out and were replaced by agency staff, many of whom were unqualified."

He wants more senior staff to be given a specific role with time and resources to support newly qualified teachers. One DfES proposal is to have a two-year "professional formation" period with some observations. But they may only be visited twice, whereas schoolteachers can be observed 18 times. For training to be comparable, he says, "colleges need advanced practitioners, paid and given the time to offer mentoring, coaching and support as part of their job description - not an add-on".

But that won't happen overnight, and his work at the Standards Unit suggests the need for a similar timescale to the Tomlinson review of post-14 qualifications, which lasts until 2010. "Teacher training will take time - it can't be done in a few years," he says. The same can be said for the Sector Skills Council for Lifelong Learning in which the FE National Training Organisation (Fento), which sets standards for teacher education, will play a part.

Six national training organisations and standard-setting bodies representing more than 500,000 staff signed up in principle to the new sector skills council on December 1 last year, thus ending speculation that dissent would scupper any chance of launching it by July. It will have considerable influence over the quality of education and training in the other 22 skills councils that cover the workforce in England, according to Christopher Duff, chief executive of the Sector Skills Development Agency. This is the overarching body that will decide whether the lifelong learning council is fit for a three-year licence and pound;4m this summer.

It is a vast enterprise which brings together the interests of further and higher education, private training providers, employment, the youth, adult and community service as well as information and library staff. It will have a remit to tackle workforce development and skills shortages, set standards of training and put in place a framework of qualifications. Employers say that treating lifelong learning as a single sector can solve their main concern - the skills gap. Greater mobility between adult and community, work-based learning, FE and higher education would also follow. The Association of Colleges says a more flexible workforce could help to reverse a dramatic rise in the number of unfilled vacancies within FE - more than 3,000 posts remain unfilled, an increase of 25 per cent on 2002.

Whatever happens, says Mr Taubman, "It is better to get it right than to rush things. Nor can it be done without the resources. I am concerned about what we will get in the next comprehensive spending review. I would urge the Government: 'Don't turn the tap off just when things are really beginning to move.' "

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