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Sir Geoffrey vows to say no, minister

The new chair of the Learning and Skills Development Agency wants it to fight learners' corner, even if this means criticising government policy. Ian Nash reports

A former top civil servant behind some of the biggest vocational reforms of the Seventies and Eighties aims to turn Britain's leading skills development agency into a champion of learners.

Sir Geoffrey Holland, new chairman of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, said: "There is no single organisation representing the interests of those who are seeking to learn and we should claim that role."

Representing consumers of education would be a radical transformation for an organisation seen largely as a backroom research body that generates ideas on issues such as how to improve training, widen participation and encourage students to stay in education.

Sir Geoffrey, former permanent secretary for both the departments of education and employment under James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, has set a target of just 12 months to complete the task.

Sir Geoffrey believes he can do this while still keeping research as the core activity of the agency. He plans to make it more politically influential and distance it from what he sees as a "cosy" relationship with the Government and Learning and Skills Council.

In his first interview with the Press since being appointed, he said: "I want what the LSDA does to become a quality stamp for learners." And by learner, he means everyone from pupils post-14 and apprentices to public services workers and employers.

He said judgments, based on sound research and development by the LSDA, would provide a quality stamp to help users judge the merits of policy decisions and what is on offer in colleges, the workplace and adult education.

The agency has had a chequered past and has often faced uncertain futures.

Created as the Further Education Development Agency 10 years ago, it was a merger of the rump of local authority and government services to FE which the then Tory administration saw as largely redundant.

Still dependent on government support for its survival, it grew only slowly with constant financial worries. This changed when Chris Hughes took over as chief executive in 1998. He expanded it rapidly, creating a semi-independent, but government-backed, research unit and began bidding for wider work. Last year the agency had a turnover of more than pound;35 million.

Its latest success was to win the contract as lead partner in the Centre for Excellence and Leadership, the national college for training post-16 managers.

But the agency's prime audience was never the learner. Its main work has been to advise the Government and providers such as colleges and work-based trainers. Indeed, learner interests are not even written into its remit.

But there is an urgent need for it to do this job, Sir Geoffrey insists.

"The Learning and Skills Council is now about regulating provision and the quality of supply. The Sector Skills Councils are about setting standards.

And the Adult Learning Inspectorate reports on practice and the outcomes of what's done. But to espouse the viewpoint and cares of the consumer is a distinctive role."

Sir Geoffrey's vision has had a favourable response from the DfES permanent secretary, (David Normington). "He has said that no one else is doing this."

Despite all the agency has achieved recently, Sir Geoffrey is concerned that it still has too low a profile - a concern shared by Mr Hughes. Sir Geoffrey said: "Someone recently described the LSDA as being 'out there, but I'm not quite sure what it does'.

"A lot of people think of us as a subsidiary of the LSC. I do not think we are or should be. Despite our advances, there is still too little discretionary money coming in."

Sir Geoffrey knows that he will ruffle feathers in government once research emerges showing policies in a bad light. At the moment there is almost a tacit understanding that the agency is at the beck and call of the DfES and LSC.

"We need an independent voice and need to be in a position where organisations feel obliged to listen to us. Legally, it (LSDA) is a charity, a business in its own right. It is not an arm of government."

His first job is to raise the agency's profile. "We should influence policy," he said. He wants the board to be pro-active and is seeking high-profile members. The huge programme of research and development will continue and expand.

"But I want board members to be more interventionist." But he does not mean they should interfere in research reports, a job which must be left to the professionals, he said.

"But when we make comments on widening participation and other issues, I want board members to comment on ideas and for these to be taken seriously at the highest level."

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