A new and better body
A recent poll by the Association for College Management showed that the single biggest thing their members wanted help with was quality improvement.
In a world awash with quality initiatives and organisations eager to show just what they thought should be done to ratchet up standards, there was nevertheless frustration over the lack of clear advice.
So, surely, the introduction of yet another government-backed agency pronouncing on quality was the last thing they needed.
"Well, that depends on what the agency has to offer," says Andrew Thomson, chief executive of the Quality Improvement Agency that opens its doors for business next month.
The Government accepts there are too many overlapping bodies. Quality improvement work has grown like Topsy in the Learning and Skills Council, Department for Education and Skills post-16 standards unit, the inspectorates, curriculum and assessment agencies and many more.
The only consensus is that there is too much of it. Indeed, Sir Andrew Foster, in his review of the future of FE last November criticised the "galaxy" of bodies in the business.
Charles Clarke, when education secretary, promised a new body to bring order to the overcrowded market. It would, he said, "be owned by the sector and would bring about real and rapid improvement".
The QIA is it. But what is it? On this, Mr Thomson, former principal of Long Road college, Cambridge, is clear.
"It will offer a one-stop shop for help and advice," he says. "The remit letter from the Secretary of State says we are to be 'a critical friend'
and 'honest broker'." So, he must be both Mr Tough and Mr Nice Guy. Not easy.
From the moment the QIA was proposed as a replacement for the Learning and Skills Development agency, it provoked responses ranging from cautious welcome to downright scepticism.
Would it sweep away duplicate work by other agencies or merely add another ingredient to the alphabet soup? And will the sector really own it?
"There will be rationalisation of what the others do," Mr Thomson says, meaning there will be clear demarcation lines.
"Ofsted will assess standards, the LSC will stop doing quality improvement work and the standards unit will be a much smaller unit monitoring effectiveness. This will leave the QIA in charge of quality improvement."
At one extreme, therefore, that makes the QIA the last hope for failing colleges from 2008, when the LSC will stop paying for all courses judged "poor" by Ofsted.
"But that won't happen if we do the job right from the outset," he insists. "Nor is it just about dealing with weak provision."
The quality-improvement job will be tackled on three fronts: peer-group support, a rapid-response unit for colleges at risk of failing, and a learning exchange similar to the teaching and learning communities' service - a successful web-based project in Northern Ireland - to help everyone improve.
Plans to send rapid-response teams into colleges on the brink inevitably grabbed headlines (FE Focus, February 10) since it smacked of ministers taking tough action over failure. That is not how Mr Thomson sees things.
"This is not about sending them in. I am confident the providers will invite them in. They are not fools, they want to do things better," he says.
"When an organisation is in difficulty, it needs help fast, or the LSC will stop funding it. It needs to be responsive and needs to know that the team is there to get a grip on what is going wrong."
Action will vary from radical intervention to recommendations for improvement - maybe using the learning exchange, he says. So the agency will tackle the work in three stages.
"Initially, it will be in rapid response to those most at risk; then, those who are not at risk but might be; and those not at risk but trying to do better.
"In the first year, we inherit a funding for a lot of existing LSDA programmes. We will reflect on these and build models of excellence.
"We don't need to reinvent things because there is enough evidence out there of people willing and able to do the work needed to get them from 'satisfactory' to 'excellent'."
If colleges were slow to capitalise on best practice in the past, it was partly because of the confusion of different agencies and partly because of conflicting government demands, Mr Thomson says. "Unfortunately, good practice that is not spread around is lost."
There had been a tendency too to concentrate on the best and worst under the pressure of targets, while paying too little attention to the middle ground "from where average provision slowly slides towards poor".
It would be a mistake to blame it all on resources, Mr Thomson insists. "There has been lots of funding and inspection for quality - but it's dominated by a compliance mentality.
"Lots of self-assessment led to technocratic reports, which were then seen as the end product and rarely acted on. The ethos now needs to be about innovation, excellence and enterprise."
Quality took a back seat in the drive for other priorities.
"Ten years ago, for example, it was all about quantity, student numbers and growth. This is still important but the driver now is how to make things better."
Mr Thomson's vision is simple. "The QIA should be a catalyst for change, an agency trusted and shared by the learning and skills community. It will give support to organisations and individuals for mutual self-improvement.
"It is about encouraging people who are satisfactory to become excellent."
Ministers have not been over-generous with cash. While the agency will have pound;90 million in the first year (to absorb LSDA work), after that it will be around pound;20m. So he must move fast to convince colleges and other providers to buy into the service.
He is confident that they will, given the bank of model resources, support services, web networks and partnership programmes on offer.
"We can identify Beacon colleges and outstanding organisations to help others seeking to improve," he says.
Again, he stresses that the resources are out there for the asking. Examples researched by LSDA include the twinning of Isle of Wight college (having poor inspection grades) with Farnborough sixth-form college. This resulted in dramatic lasting improvements.
"The QIA will be part of a change towards a new way of doing things.
"At present, it is about the system driving the person, not the person driving the system. That has to change."