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This man will sell you LSD...

...that's learning and skills development - Chris Hughes explains how his agency will earn its keep by asking really deep questions about FE's future. Ngaio Crequer reports.

OVERLOOKED by Jeffrey Archer's penthouse, with its huge poppy hanging out of the window, a short walk from MI6's London headquarters, and next-door to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, Chris Hughes works right in the thick of things.

And life is going to get even busier for the chief executive of the soon-to-be-renamed Further Education Development Agency.

The Government has asked the agency to expand to take account of the whole learning and skills sector.

Its ambitious new mission is to be nothing less than the national body for the development of policy and practice in post-16 education and training.

It will be changing its name to the Learning and Skills Development Agency. Mr Hughes is ready for the jokes about the abbreviation, which contains the letters LSD. "What will be the acid test of our success?" he said.

First, its research capacity will be expanded. "It will mean a move towards a much clearer identification of the big strategic questions.

"We have got to ask horrendously simple questions such as: what motivates people to become learners? People are just beginning to realise that to talk about lifelong learning is one thing, but to get participation is another.

"The Learning and Skills Council has a duty to increase participation and we have to find out how to do that."

Mr Hughs has made striking progress since he took over the helm nearly two-and-a-half years ago. Then the agency was seen as very much of a lame duck, and had been crticised by MPs for its performance.

But since his arrival, its turn-over has doubled. The agency receives a pound;4 million government grant but the rest of its pound;22m income comes from winning contracts in the marketplace.

The new agency hopes to manage multi-million research projects. "They will be big studies, we are talking serious money here, " said Mr Hughes.

Examples of future projects include effective working with disadvantaged young people, evaluating non-vocational education pilots, and reviewing the achievement of students in deprived areas.

The agency will also be taking a closer look at work-based training.

"We need to understand more about the needs of training providers," said Mr Hughes. "We have already started talking to them about the quality improvements that are needed."

He added: "Right now the bulk of our business is with colleges. They will always be a huge and important part of our business, but we will now spread out and be seen as a key partner in the learning and skills world.

"We will support colleges in meeting the challenges of the learning and skills sector. When they were with local education authorities they were often left to their own devices, a kind of benign neglect.

"Now they will be challenged and asked questions about what they are doing, in a way they have never been before."

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