College staff have been promised whatever backing they need to raise training standards.
Education Secretary Charles Clarke has told experts charged with improving post-16 training standards to "make it happen" and promised whatever financial and political backing they need.
Speaking at the official launch of the post-16 standards unit, Mr Clarke told staff that they should be "absolutely ruthless" in driving through change, and said the Government would even draw up legislation if necessary.
The unit is headed up by Jane Williams, the former principal of City of Wolverhampton College. She has a budget of more than pound;100 million to invest over the next three years. There is a staff of 30, based in Sheffield and London, and she can call on the services of 40 consultants to provide advice.
With these resources, she must investigate the best teaching methods to be found in further education and work-based learning and incorporate these into national guidance. The unit will also use this information to provide a training programme for teaching staff. The unit will work closely with the new leadership college, aiming to improve the professionalism of college managers.
Department for Education and Skills officials, college leaders and standards unit members attended last Thursday's launch of the body, the equivalent of the schools standards unit. It will work with the Learning and Skills Development Agency, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the inspectorates.
Mr Clarke told his audience: "Do not underestimate the extent to which this is a priority for the Government as a whole. It is a total priority for me, for the Chancellor of the Exchequer and for the Prime Minister.
"We must get this right. If we get this wrong, then trying to pull ourselves out of it afterwards is going to be extremely difficult.
"You are at the cutting edge of what the Government is setting out to achieve for the whole country.
"We must be absolutely ruthless in driving through change and ensuring it happens - whether that is with employers or with colleges.
"You must not assume that there is any limit on what you can do. Don't think there is not enough money or the law won't allow it.
"If there is something that we really believe is worth doing, then we can make the legal changes and find more money on top of the substantial sum we have already provided. Go out there and make it happen. That's what it is all about."
Margaret Hodge, minister for lifelong learning, further and higher education, said: "For far too long we have allowed FE to survive alone and unsupported. We hope to bring it into the mainstream of lifelong learning.
"It is a crucial part of the education system - for people who have missed out on their first chance at school, for workers who want more qualifications and for employers who need a well-trained workforce.
"Everything is happening much faster than we thought it would. We have some very serious objectives and Jane Williams has recruited a fabulous team from the sector and from the department, a real mix of people who are working enthusiastically on the agenda we've set to improve the curriculum framework, particularly in areas identified in inspections as being weak."
Ms Hodge said the unit hoped to have new frameworks for four pilot areas in place by the summer, for business studies, science, construction and entry to employment. A new leadership college will be established by September, eventually providing training for all layers of college management.
Ms Williams said: "This is our official launch, but the work has already started on four curriculum areas and it all seems positive."
However, a note of caution was sounded by Mike Fisher, the unit's lead secondee for the construction industry. He told The TES that, while he was enthusiastic about the "very real" prospect of improving training standards, there were other long-term problems which would continue to hinder the sector.
He said: "There are major problems such as recruitment and retention, especially in construction.
"I think we will meet our short-term aims of establishing principles of best practice, but we need to shape policy at the highest level so that, in the long-term, we can start tackling the bigger issues."
TIMETABLE FOR CHANGE
MARCH 2003: launch of post-16 standards unit
May: trials of teaching materials
August: agree learning providers' two-year budgets from 2004
September: piloting of new teaching and learning frameworks
October: regional teaching and development workers to be in place