As the new Learning and Skills Act becomes law, the new man in charge of the post-16 reforms John Harwood outlines his vision in an interview with Ian Nash.
The man charged with leading a post-school learning and skills revolution refuses to be drawn into the "student numbers game" when people demand closure of small sixth forms. John Harwood, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, accepts that schools are better funded than colleges (up to pound;1,500 more for every student taking a two-year course with three A-levels) but says that calls for closure are less than helpful.
But that does not mean any special grace and favour for Middle England. "Where quality exists, we will support it. Where it is lacking, we will first look for things to improve," he says. "The answer may be other than closure. That issue is about quality, not student numbers."
His comments, in an interview with The TES, punctuated the central message in his and the Government's agenda. From the end of next week, when the national council and its 47 local arms take command of a pound;6.2 billion budget and 5 million learners, every college, school, voluntary body, private provider and adult education and community group should be considering partnership and expansion, not competition and contraction.
The main problem that John Harwood and his chairman, Bryan Sanderson, must address is one of suspicion and mistrust, which have grown over a decade of competition between providers aimed at cutting costs per head by improving efficiency.
While such measures might have been cost-efficient (40 per cent growth for only 25 per cent extra cash), the effective quality gains made were too few: skills shortages remain; youth unemployment is unacceptably high; the idea of a lifelong learning culture has yet to take off. And the academic-vocational divide is still too apparent.
Harwood sees "a pecking order" of fears: youth and community groups think they will play second fiddle to employers and work-based learning providers, who in turn think they will continue to get a raw deal compared with colleges. And colleges, of course, tend to envy sixth forms.
"These fears are unfounded," he says. "There will be no problems arising merely because the Learning and Skills Council is suddenly there. These problems arise from the separate funding streams (such as the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils). Now we have a single funding stream that looks at all the money in a particular area and makes sure it meets the needs of all the people, communities and businesses."
A huge array of new organisations (and new powers for existing ones) take effect two days after the FEFC and TECs are wound up. People in all sectors are familiar with many of them.
The Adult Learning Inspectorate takes responsibility for everything post-19. The powers of Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, are extended to everything in the 16-19 range. The University for Industry's Learndirect "hubs" will provide missing courses and materials in the provision jigsaw, and local education authorities will regain powers to open post-16 centres.
Fair funding (level playing fields, in the common parlance) is promised - in time - and a flexible curriculum with lifelong entitlements offers lifelong learning opportunites for all. In fact, these things have become so familiar that people expect them to come on April 2 without fuss. But, even if they did, the culture would not come with it.
"We are talking about a programme of work stretching for at least the next decade," says Harwood. "We are trying to remedy a situation that has taken 150 years to create. People must understand we are trying to run a marathon - not sprint a hundred yards."
But in saying this, he knows that the political agenda offers no such luxury. The first stage in setting the LSC agenda is almost done: to put in place the mechanisms for greater coherence. But the second is more perilous and must come within one parliamentary term. Indeed, it is the second half of what Tony Blair, after Labour's 1997 general election victory, described as his "10-year vision".
Under the stewardship of Harwood and Sanderson, the national and local skills councils must respond to demand in a way that is very different from previous funding councils. Nationally, the LSC is not there merely to proffer funds to chosen providers. It must also develop a strategy to drive up lifelong participation. And it must be quality provision. That, if anything, will be the most critical second-term issue - the pay-off.
Harwood is aware of this. "At least 160,000 young people every year slip out of education and training. We need to tackle some deep-seated inheritances - for instance, the seven million functionally illiterate and innumerate adults."
But much has been started already, he says. "We are already seeing progress with area inspections changing how institutions work together. We are not trying to impose a top-down, centralised model but to establish a national drive and national commitment to be delivered at local level.
"We are already seeing local LSCs such as Derby, East London and Brent, where local executive directors are involved in action plans to get more people involved."
And at a national level? "It is our job, with Susan Pember and her Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit to make inroads into the number of people who have problems with reading or numbers," he says.
He agrees that the range of challenges is formidable and that there is a clear need to keep everything in perspective. "Some are easy, some are small peaks, foothills on the way to four commanding peaks."
And it is these peaks that he likes to reinforce in the minds of learners and providers as he tours the country.
"First, we need many more people to stay in full-time learning beyond compulsory school age," he says. "Second, we must improve links between business and the world of education. We won't have a modern workforce to reinvest in unless we can boast a world-class 21st-century economy.
"Third, we need to improve the quality of an awful lot of learning that takes place. Some of our establishments are the best in the world. But too many institutions are not world-class standard.
"Fourth, we need to change the culture in many parts of the country. It is about a belief in learning and what we can achieve for the individual."
The only numbers game Harwood wants to play is that of driving up the numbers of people in learning, whether in school, college, workplace or community. And keeping them there.
Full Wales report next week