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Spotlight on skills task force

A new government-backed agency will be created by 2006 with the aim of driving up standards in colleges and work-based training centres.

But, rather than add to the list of organisations setting standards and scrutinising the sector, the job will be given to the Learning and Skills Development Agency.

It will be charged with a range of tasks such as helping to cut bureaucracy, improve management standards and reduce the need for scrutiny by inspectors and other outside agencies. Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, expressed his preference for the LSDA to take the role, when he announced the pound;130 million boost for colleges at the agency's summer conference last week.

Jane Williams, director of the Department for Education and Skills post-16 standards unit, this week confirmed that the LSDA was the only body being considered for the role. It would also take on much of the work of other agencies.

The Government has been attacked for creating new bodies with over-lapping and unclear objectives. The proliferation of such bodies scrutinising the sector was a central criticism by Sir Andrew Foster, the Government's college bureaucracy-busting tsar, in his first-year report last week.

Ms Williams said: "Nobody wants to create additional organisations in what is already a busy national landscape." A feasibility study would begin this summer to see how such a body can work successfully. "We are talking to all key partners about this, particularly the inspectors, and we will carry out consultations on the way forward.

"The new organisation will bring things together so we do not get confusing messages. We need to get greater clarity to the front line of the Learning and Skills Council, the inspectorate and the proposed improvement body," she said.

The decision to put the LSDA centre stage is a considerable fillip for an agency that grew from relative obscurity to become a pound;30m-plus research and development agency within three years under its director Chris Hughes.

As it grew, the agency created a major research unit to advise government while remaining independent of it. Sources close to Mr Clarke said: "He sees this as the only organisation with the skills to drive the improvement agenda forward while retaining credibility with ministers and the sector."

A key role of the improvement agency will be to keep central government and its agencies off colleges' backs and reduce the bureaucracy load.

The DfES standards unit would continue to press ahead with the reforms spelled out in Success for All in the run-up to 2006, Ms Williams said.

"This has brought considerable benefits and we will see the publication of very good success rates by the end of the month."

Particular gains had been made through efforts to improve teaching and learning. She said: "We have 35 regional events this summer involving 2,000 people. There is also an excellent response to the advertisements in The TES for leadership courses - the phones are red-hot."

Amid all the early hints of a new body to rationalise research, development and evaluation within the post-16 sector, there were rumours that the DfES standards unit would be axed.

But Ms Williams said: "I think possibly that because of the announcements about the (closure of the) school standards and effectiveness unit, people ask about us. But we have a different timetable and the lifelong learning agenda is more recent."

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