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Quango's charm offensive

FE's new improvement agency teamed a lingerie entrepreneur with the Education Secretary to help convince colleges that it is on their side. Martin Whittaker reports

The new agency given the task of improving quality in further education set out its stall and began selling itself at its first conference last week.

But is the world of FE buying it?

The Quality Improvement Agency was just two months old when its chief executive, Andrew Thomson, took the stage in front of more than 500 delegates in Birmingham.

He certainly had some selling to do. The QIA was set up partly to bring order to the "quangocracy" of the learning and skills sector, by taking quality improvement under one roof. But critics initially saw it as just another quango.

In April the Learning and Skills Development Agency split cell-like into two, creating the QIA - which has a first-year budget of pound;92 million - and the Learning And Skills Network, which aims to promote good practice.

But Mr Thomson's main conference message was that the QIA is "owned by the sector". It will support colleges and other providers by promoting excellence and innovation. And, he said, it is going to do this with providers, not to them.

Mr Thomson said the time has come for a culture of self-improvement to transform FE. "The fundamental challenge is to seize the moment, to encourage the talent, the enterprise, the innovative capacity of you, the people you work with, our people, to deliver the goods.

"Our conference is aimed therefore at the dynamics of improving quality. I hope you will go from here with your spirits raised and your sights clear about how you can make your contribution to the world ahead, in making our further education system the best in the world."

QIA had some big hitters on board to try to get its messages across, including Alan Johnson giving only his second speech as Education Secretary.

Mr Johnson played nasty cop to Andrew Thomson's nice. He called for "More plumbing, less Pilates," to the consternation of delegates from adult and community learning.

And, citing the Government's intention to stop funding failing colleges by 2008, Mr Johnson added: "We need to help poor performers to recover, and the improvement notices and other steps in the white paper are designed to help this process.

"But where, despite all efforts, progress still doesn't take place, we will take firm action. I will increase the Learning and Skills Council's powers of intervention through legislation if I have to."

Motivation and talk of the pursuit of excellence were to the fore as delegates were treated to talks and presentations from an array of self-starters, including explorer Miles Hilton-Barber, Olympic gold-medal winner Dame Kelly Holmes, and entrepreneur Michelle Mone.

Mrs Mone, 34, who grew up in a Glasgow tenement and left school at 15, invented the Ultimo comfort bra in her 20s and now runs a multi-national company worth pound;20 million.

She told her own rags-to-riches story, complete with photographs of lingerie-clad models - the kind of images, not often seen at an education conference.

On a more sober note, there were seminars outlining the QIA's programmes to help colleges and other providers improve, including the Learning Exchange - a new web portal to find and exchange best practice. It also tackled involving students in improving learning and the Train to Gain programme to help colleges work with employers.

Other programmes include support for Skills for Life staff, improving education and training in prisons, and moves to boost the teaching of post-16 citizenship.

One of QIA's responsibilities is to lead on producing a quality improvement strategy for the sector. Many had expected the strategy's launch at the conference. But it will be published later this month to coincide with the publication of the LSC's new "Framework for Excellence" - a series of benchmarks which colleges can use to help raise their game. The strategy will then go out to consultation and ministers will receive it in October.

Delegates were given a brief taster of the strategy at one of the conference seminars.

Dr Kate Anderson, the QIA's director of improvement and strategy, said self-improvement is the key. "We think colleges have had enough of organisations telling them what to do and how to do it," she said. "We believe it's in your hands. Self-improvement and the pursuit of excellence is in the hands of colleges and providers."

It will give those working in FE a coherent framework of support, setting out clear roles and responsibilities for national agencies and organisations.

One noticeable feature of QIA's conference was how relatively few college principals were there. Of the 518 on the delegates' list, only 37 were principals. There were 41 deputy or assistant principals.

A spokesman for QIA said it will be gaining more feedback from principals with a straw poll. "The college principals' main conference is the AoC conference in November," he said. "The QIA conference was aimed at a much wider spectrum of delegates."

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