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New council keen to talk to its customers

The LSCis investigating new ways of measuring colleges' achievements, reports Ian Nash

Students are to be asked what they think of post-school education and training under novel plans being considered by the Learning and Skills Council.

Independent researchers such as MORI or NOP could be hired to conduct opinion polls of 1,000 learners, to gauge "customer satisfaction" on a five-point scale.

John Harwood, chief executive of the council, told FEFocus: "This would not be a check on local provision but a national measure of satisfaction with what the country is offering its learners."

Mr Harwood was speaking after the Association for College Management's annual conference in Solihull, where he promised more supportive management and a leadership style that was based on learners' needs.

He recognised that colleges were too often blamed for the failings of a few. "I want to move away from a culture of blame and criticism and into a regime of support."

Colleges had made big strides in raising post-16 participation in FE from three to four million students (33 per cent) in eight years since incorporation, he said. But there were still areas of concern, such as the relatively low staying-on rates among 17-year-olds.

Mr Harwood was concerned too about the fact that only 10 per cent of colleges were "world-class for the 21st century" - achieving an overall grade 1 from inspections. Around 50 per cent were very close, with grade 2.

"I want all these to be world-class as soon as possible," he said.

There are worries in the new council that national targets for education and training fail to measure customer attitude. Even students and work-based trainees who get hrough one level of a qualification can be put off for life because the experience is unenjoyable. Mr Harwood will seek views on different ways of gauging the opinions of learners as an additional tool for improvement.

Earlier in the week, the LSC chairman, Bryan Sanderson, told FEFocus: "You can target opinion very accurately with the right groups. You don't need to test one in 100, you can do it with one in 1,000."

Samples of up to 5,000 learners could give the council an accurate view of how well the country was doing in the eyes of learners, he said.

Principals at the ACM conference (sponsored by The TES) urged the council to create more sophisticated tracking systems to give a better picture of student retention rates.

Dorothy Jones, principal of Southwark College, London, called for a "returners' credit". Colleges were often penalised for apparent "drop-out rates" when students were quitting for short spells, and for good reason, to resume their studies elsewhere. "In the LSC era, colleges have got to be on the ball and make sure they know where they are going to," she said.

The ACM was the last big FE conference before the official hand-over from the Further Education Funding Council to the Learning and Skills Council today.

A clearer picture emerged at the conference of the Government's pound;100m plans for at least half the colleges in England and Wales to become vocational centres of excellence over three years.

Ten to 15 pathfinder colleges will be picked to start this September, followed by the first round of bids for centres to start in the new year. Each will have pound;250,000 pump-priming cash.

More ACM reports are at:

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