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The standards bearer

She's the prime mover behind an unprecedented policy overhaul for the FE sector which has the pursuit of excellence as its mantra. Jane Williams tells Ian Nash of her hopes for a lasting revolution

This year sees a huge rise in the number of activities aimed at improving the quality of post-16 education and training under the Government's Success for All initiative. By the autumn, thousands of teachers will start using new teaching materials now being piloted, building on the achievements of the past 12 months. The new Centre for Excellence in Leadership is now getting under way. A broader curriculum is opening college and workplace training to 14-year-olds, and foundation degrees are emerging.

The list of new opportunities and challenges for teachers, leaders and learners seems endless. But for Jane Williams, director of the Standards Unit at the Department for Education and Skills, they can be summed up by a single phrase: the pursuit of excellence. Individuals who join her in that pursuit will be rewarded - in many ways. Reforms will lead to greater job satisfaction for all, she promises. And there will be more, such as the new STAR awards, similar to the much-praised "Oscars" for schoolteachers which have helped raise the image of the profession. Exemplary providers are also being awarded the department's beacon status.

Williams and her staff find it hard to credit that the wraps were taken off the improvement plans only 15 months ago. In November 2002 at the Association for Colleges annual conference, Charles Clarke unveiled a pound;1.2 billion three-year expansion plan for learning and skills. The sector was "undervalued, under-resourced and too often underachieving", said the Secretary of State for Education. Greater rewards would be linked to measures spelled out in Success for All. Reforms follow four themes - wider choice, a new focus on teaching and learning, workforce development and improved quality. The Standards Unit would take charge of themes 2 and 3, while the Learning and Skills Council would do the rest.

Williams shares with her counterpart Rob Wye, the newly appointed director of the chief executive's division at the Learning and Skills Council, the task of ensuring that changes are part of England's wider public sector reforms, crucial to social and economic health. She is pleased with the achievements so far. "The report on Success for All, The First Year, last November showed that we had made a sound start with early signs of improved performance and better outcomes for learners," she says. "But there are caveats. We need to ensure that our measurements of improvement are reliable. There is still too much variability across and within different providers for no apparent good reason. There is too much provision at the poor end. Year on year, I want an increase in the number we can reliably say is excellent, with clear employer satisfaction."

There are specific ways in which the Standards Unit has tried to accelerate improvements in teaching and learning, but work in the early stages has been about "analysing the need and testing the ground", she says. "Now we are in the pilot phase, and I am pleased to say that they like the changes, and that providers piloting changes are moving in the right direction."

More than 300 teachers and trainers and 4,000 learners were involved in the development and piloting of new materials and teaching approaches in business studies, construction, science and entry to employment (E2E) - the toughest nuts to crack. Early work in the next four subjects - health and social care, IT, land-based studies and maths - is under way. The work is already paying dividends, Williams believes. That teachers and practitioners who are "on the front line" identify the needs makes all the difference when others want to make improvements, she adds.

Hand in hand with these developments are the big issues of initial teacher education and workforce development which envisage a whole new approach, including steps to attract more ethnic minority staff and leaders to act as role models. "Again, there are positive signs of significant progress," she says.

Improvements in many areas are revealed in inspection grades. Her teams are exploring other measures to judge improvement, including LSC performance reviews and drop-out and achievement rates. They have just published a consultation document, Measuring Success. But she makes no apologies for the emphasis on inspections. "Inspection judgments give us a key analysis and crucial messages about the way learners achieve," she says.

But Williams's ambitions for the profession run deeper than the issues outlined in Success for All. "If it is to succeed, it has to be underpinned with recruitment strategies," she says. "There is much to learn from the strategies adopted for schools - the starter homes initiative, for example.

It is necessary to realise that FE teachers suffer the same frustrations as schoolteachers."

Inevitably, such issues can make a career in post-16 education and training more attractive, as does the support of employers. "I was therefore delighted when the employers recently signed up to the Sector Skills Council for Lifelong Learning," she says. "A pan-sector strategic body is crucial to ensuring consistently high standards for teachers and learners - whether in college or the workplace."

Crucial, too, is the question of effective leadership, which is why she sets great store by the new Centre for Excellence in Leadership, led by Lynne Sedgmore, principal of Guildford College. At present, as in every area of public life, there is a cycle of decline in leadership. Average numbers of applicants for college principal posts plunged from 200 to 20 in a decade, according to figures from the Association of Colleges. "I want a virtuous cycle with everyone taking things forward to improve the quality and calibre of leadership," she says.

Many complex issues lie behind the decline, but one thing that epitomises it most is the red tape and bureaucracy that grew in the 1990s to keep an unregulated market in check - and with it came deep-seated government distrust of FE. Having seen it imposed on her in all walks of life, from the career start in the 1970s, to managing staff training at the Shropshire, Hereford and Worcester Manpower Services Commission and overseeing the merger of Bilston and Wulfrun to form City of Wolverhampton College, Williams says: "I am allergic to the incremental growth of bureaucracy - and so are the teachers and trainers. I want them freed up to do what they can do best. That's why the LSC's bureaucracy-cutting is at the heart of everything from initial teacher education to workforce development. If the job is made more attractive, people will stay."

She has the same vision for FE that she had at the outset of her career - to tie together the strands of 14-19 education, vocational and workforce skills training, relevant higher education and adult and community learning. This will be achieved through Success for All and related initiatives, she insists, "if each of us focuses co-operatively on the jobs we have been given".

Indeed, that is why the Standards Unit and LSC, along with the Learning and Skills Development Agency, have created "light touch" regional structures which, where possible, will share premises. "We have no interest in duplication or fragmentation. This is not a model dictated by Whitehall but one worked out across the country for everyone's needs," she says.

"I am concerned about poor provision and want it improved quickly, but we all recognise that the big changes will not happen overnight. I want those in the middle ground and nudging towards excellence to be up there among the best. More important, over time I want everyone who works in the system to see that they are contributing to changes for the better for learners."

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