A step up to better quality?
Government plans for a new national agency to drive up the quality of teaching and learning in colleges and training centres have been greeted with a mixture of high hopes and scepticism.
Those affected hope the agency - the Quality Improvement Agency for Lifelong Learning (QuILL) - will have professional clout and political independence. But many doubt that it will have genuine freedom or cut a significant path through the maze of existing bodies attempting to do a similar job. These range from the Government's standards unit and the Learning and Skills Council to the inspectors and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
One former senior civil servant told FE Focus: "It's like having nine cricket teams playing on the same pitch at the same time. Instead of sorting out the mess, the umpire has added to the confusion by bringing on a 10th team."
But Andrew Thomson, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency and the man charged with setting up the new body, disagrees.
"This is not a question of how many teams we have, but understanding what they do and how they support each other," he said.
QuiLL's tasks, spelt out in the 14-19 white paper last week, are threefold.
First, it must build on the work of the standards unit by commissioning high-quality curriculum materials and services.
It must also create a network of advisers to work with school sixth-forms, colleges and training groups. Third, it must spread and share good practice in vocational education around organisations such as the new skills academies - Jto be unveiled in a skills white paper next week - and college centres of vocational excellence.
Mr Thomson insists that, in order to achieve these goals, managers, lecturers and tutors must take control even before the new agency comes into force in April 2006.
"The new body will be owned by colleges and other training providers," he said.
Since Labour came to power, ministers have spoken of the need to create "a culture of self-improvement". They have promised "lighter-touch" inspections and a more hands-off approach from government agencies. But ministers have also insisted that these rights must be earned.
Mr Thomson believes the new agency holds the key to earning those rights.
"Quality improvement begins at home. It's the responsibility of people who work in the colleges and other training providers," he said. "The question is how to help them make those improvements more rapidly."
Last summer, at the LSDA conference in June, the then Education Secretary Charles Clarke announced his intention to create a new body to improve quality, and the idea was developed further at the Association of Colleges'
annual conference in November.
By December, Mr Thomson, former principal of Long Road college, Cambridge, took over as chief executive of the LSDA, out of which organisation he was told to shape the new body. Creating it from an existing and well-respected organisation should make it easier to "sell" the new body, he believes.
"The LSDA always set 'improvement in quality' at the heart of its mission," he said. "Until December, it was always seen as a force for good in the sector, and as an agency partly concerned with research and disseminating what worked, and partly with staff development."
There is a wide range of tasks which the new agency could do, he said - commissioning subject learning coaches, helping heads of department to develop their skills more quickly and identifying what works when designing courses for employers.
He added: "I want to give colleges and others greater scope for self-regulation and improvement, make the sector more responsive to reforms and national priorities and speed up improvements in performance.
"What really matters is not how many agencies there are but the clarity of what they do. A really big role for this agency is to make things happen."
There are already some excellent education and training schemes out there for the agency to tap into, he said. In the 10 weeks since he took office, he has visited many. These range from a scheme run by Lambeth college and training provider TBG, which prepares young people for employment, to college-employer collaboration in Northern Ireland.
"But are we sharing that or are we all inventing and reinventing the same things?" he said. "Self-evaluation is not just a vague notion that this might one day work. It is a hard set of principles. Someone who says 'I want to be a better head of department' will find out from another head of department what works. One of our tasks must be to help people make those links."
HOPE AND FEAR: THE SECTOR'S REACTION
Association for College Management
The body's prime responsibility must be to sort through the "structural jungle" of institutions with overlapping responsibilities for quality improvement. The current set-up is irrational and incoherent. The college sector has grown used to this "bizarre state of affairs" as the norm.
"Our hope is that the new body will put in place lighter, leaner, rational, transparent, coherent and more focused arrangements," the association said.
"Our fear is that it will be yet one more organisation confusing the quality process."
Nadine Cartner, ACM'S head of policy, said: "Colleges need to give support to make the transition from knowing how to do it to actually doing it."
Association of Colleges
The AoC welcomes the new body but says it is unclear whether it will be an arm of government or an independent body working with providers on behalf of the learner.
Judith Norrington, AoC's director of curriculum and quality, said: "It would be unfortunate if it simply facilitated the latest government initiative. I would like to see an independent body that can support learning in all its forms. Its primary aim must be to support students and learners of all ages."
National Institute of Adult Continuing Education
The new body must help all providers to take forward their strategies for improving performance, and help to streamline the improvement and accountability system.
Too little consideration has been given to how the body will sit alongside the inspectorates and how it will complement the work of other organisations.
"Despite the document's statement of intent to work with, rather than upon, providers, we have little sense of the ways in which QuILL will give providers the sense of 'ownership' which will be necessary if it is to succeed," the institute said.
Centre for Excellence in Leadership
Lynne Sedgmore, the centre's chief executive, said: "We welcome the clarity and extra support that the new body can bring across the sector, but we want to stress how important it is that the new landscape of quality improvement is led and owned by colleges and other providers. They must be made to feel they have a part in creating this new landscape."
Learning and Skills Council
The LSC's director of evaluation and strategic development, Roger Marriott, said: "The new body will make a big difference by simplifying the arrangements for supporting learning providers in improving quality. The LSC will continue to play a pivotal role in bringing about improvements in quality across the sector and is looking forward to having a close working partnership with QuILL."