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Regions for heavenly bodies

New localised standards units should co-ordinate the drive towards excellence, writes Andrew Mourant

No one could wax more lyrically about the nine regional standards units than Jan Portillo, the new development director for the far north of England. "I learned a new word recently: syzygy," she says. "It's an astronomical term meaning heavenly bodies coming together, a fabulous word for the standards unit."

Her territory will mirror that covered by her local regional development agency and learning and skills council as well as a new regional version of the Learning and Skills Development Agency - a substantial chunk of territory from the Tweed to the Tees and the Pennines.

The Standards Unit, set up last year to transform teaching, learning and leadership across the sector, is attempting to harness the work of partner organisations to improve quality. Its mission, as evinced by education ministers, is "developing the leaders, teachers, trainers and support staff of the future - putting teaching, training and learning at the heart of what we do".

Will partners, some of them hefty bureaucracies, be easily harnessed? Jan Portillo has the optimism of the missionary. "We expect to have a close working relationship. We have one vision: improving standards."

For her, this has become familiar work. As teaching and learning consultant (and also director for teaching and learning at Gateshead College), Ms Portillo was a driving force behind the Gateshead Teaching and Learning Initiative. Costing pound;800,000, pound;500,000 of it from Tyne and Wear learning and skills council, its aim has been to use new research and thinking in teaching and learning to provide a "cohesive, structured approach to education".

One of her first acts, neatly in tune with government thinking, was to appoint 18 learning coaches in secondary schools, at Gateshead College, and three work-based learning organisations. Their job is to disseminate knowledge and principles of teaching, leadership and management, and personal effectiveness. Among them are advanced skills and leading teachers, gifted and talented co-ordinators, learning mentors for pupils and teaching staff and key stage 3 consultants.

Other elements of the initiative are networking to identify and share best practice, the use of virtual learning environments, and continual professional development. Partners include the Hay Group, consultants in management and education, the University of Newcastle and the educational organisation, Thinking Cap.

Ms Portillo speaks proudly of the model, which she regards as ideal training for her new job with the Standards Unit. She had to work hard to get teachers released from schools in the early stages, she says. But the effort paid off. "We made meetings very purposeful and relevant. It's all about knowing what you want and how you're going to get there."

Her counterpart in the South West, Wilf Hudson, agrees on the need for clarity. "Our function is quite clear - to improve the quality of teaching and learning and improve leadership."

Driving home that message he sees as his first priority. Mr Hudson, like Ms Portillo, knows the territory - he's done more than 20 years in FE and served 10 years as an inspector with the Further Education Funding Council and Ofsted.

"The value of a regional unit, I think, is in getting closer to providers," he said. He believes that by working closely with partners such as the regional development agency, the local LSC, the Learning and Skills Development Agency and the Joint Information Systems Committee, any overlap can be avoided.

His fiefdom stretches from Gloucestershire to Land's End to Bournemouth.

Within it, three members of Mr Hudson's team, "expert practitioners" with a teaching background, will go into colleges to offer support - "to try to help create learning communities". He also wants centres of vocational excellence to show how other institutions and providers can reach their standards.

"In a year's time, I'd like to think we have a support system in place that people understand and which the people who need support have accessed; also that things are getting better for them and learners," he says.

Kate Anderson, director of research, for the Learning and Skills Development Agency, believes that where the big players can work cheek by jowl, things should run smoothly. "With the LSC, the Standards Unit and LSDA co-located, it completes the triangle," she said. "The trick will be to find a way of bringing all the strands together so you can make sense of what's going on and develop services without duplication.

"Each region has developed its own responses as new initiatives come on stream. I see a great possibility of developing a more coherent operation of support systems for providers."

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