The first commission on FE teaching standards for decades was launched this week, after appointing commissioners from 167 applications. It begins work as colleges face criticism from Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw about teaching quality, with two-thirds of recent inspections seeing grades worsen.
Frank McLoughlin, the City and Islington College principal who is chairing the commission on adult education, said there had been too little study of how to teach vocational subjects. "I have been in the sector for more than 30 years, and this is the first time in my career that we have had a focus on teaching and learning in the FE sector," he said. "It's much researched, much spoken about in the schools sector, but it's a very different story for us. It's undervalued in terms of research."
Mr McLoughlin said he would take evidence from Ofsted to back up the claims of chief inspector Sir Michael, who told MPs: "I am very concerned about the quality of provision in the learning and skills sector."
Sir Michael added that colleges were "using the complexity of FE as a cover for not doing what they should be doing, which is monitoring the quality of teaching".
Since he became chief inspector, 10 out of 15 general FE colleges have had worsening grades at inspection, six of them dropping at least two grades. The greatest decline was that of Macclesfield College, which dropped straight from outstanding to inadequate. Sir Michael attributed the problems partly to the length of time FE teachers can go unqualified, a situation that could be exacerbated by Lord Lingfield's recommendation in his interim report on FE professionalism to make qualifications optional for employers.
Mr McLoughlin declined to comment on whether he endorsed Ofsted's conclusions, saying he did not want to prejudge the commission. But he said teacher training and continuing professional development were essential. "I always say to staff, even (Barcelona and Argentina international) Lionel Messi has a coach, the greatest footballer in the world. Everyone needs ongoing support to improve their professional performance," he said. "I don't know a principal who wouldn't recognise that teacher training and ongoing CPD are critical."
The commission, which is expected to report next spring, with an interim report by December, will have Association of Colleges president Fiona McMillan and Rolls-Royce executive Graham Schuhmacher as its deputy chairs. The commissioners range from college principals and training providers to a student at South Downs College and 2011's apprentice of the year, who works for Transport for London.
"They are not just the usual suspects from the sector-based organisations," Mr McLoughlin said. "It will not be a traditional Westminster-based commission. We will go into workplaces, into colleges, on to farms. We're not just taking academic submissions."
The commission's brief from the government is to set the standard for a good course for an adult or an apprentice and to define a range of good teaching strategies. It will be backed by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service and the Institute for Learning.
"We've always measured the vocational against the academic. That's apples and oranges," said Mr McLoughlin. "The skill set that a teacher and trainer has to have is very different from those in the academic sector. It's the reference to the workplace that is critical."
Getting the teaching of vocational education right would be important for the economy, he said. "We have to prepare for the future; for the challenges not just for the UK but the global economy. We have to train the workforce for the future."