Bodies dealing with education standards have been growing like mushrooms, and simplification is now overdue. Neil Merrick reports
Nobody is sure how so many organisations ended up on Quality Street - the road most colleges go down for staff training and advice on how to raise standards.
Five years ago, it was a relatively quiet street on the outskirts of further education, but it has steadily grown into a burgeoning super-highway that will soon lead to the learning and skills sector's new holy grail - the Quality Improvement Strategy.
The residents of Quality Street are increasingly sensitive to claims that it has become a little over-developed.
Lynne Sedgmore, chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, has sympathy for colleges confused by the number of bodies apparently overseeing the sector. "We are all clear that the landscape needs simplifying," she says.
John Stone, principal of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college, is banking on the Department for Education and Skills to clear things up in a forthcoming skills white paper that will double up as its response to the Foster review on the future of FE.
By then, however, Mr Stone will also become part of that landscape, when he takes over as chief executive of the new Learning Support Network - a training provider which will inherit most of the Learning and Skills Development Agency's business from April 1.
The CEL and LSN do at least provide training, making their contribution a little more obvious to the public. Others, such as Lifelong Learning UK, move behind the scenes.
Sir Andrew Foster described the pictureas "crowded" in last year's review of FE. Ministers were already aware of the problem and are rationalising things by splitting the LSDA in two and creating a new body, the Quality Improvement Agency, that should explain to the sector what everybody else is supposed to be doing.
Andrew Thomson, who has moved from the chief executive's post at the LSDA to lead the new agency, said: "In future, all improvement activities will be driven by the QIA. The important thing is that we are clear about what the different agencies do."
The emergence of the QIA means the Learning and Skills Council will be less directly involved in quality issues.
"It removes an area of confusion over lines of demarcation between the LSC and other agencies," says Roger Marriott, its director of evaluation and strategic development.
The standards unit set up by the DfES three years ago faces an uncertain future, with much of its work also going to the QIA. Jane Williams, head of the unit, declined to be interviewed.
Following the Foster review, Lifelong Learning UK and the CEL are drawing up a workforce development plan for further education.
While many agencies are focused solely on England, LLUK faces the extra challenge of reconciling staff needs across four countries.
"We are developing a wider blueprint across the UK," says LLUK chief executive David Hunter. "Other organisations can't do that in the same way."
For the past four years, staff in the learning and skills sector have been encouraged to join its professional body, the Institute for Learning.
Monica Deasy, who is chair of the Institute for Learning and director of standards and qualifications at LLUK, says the Government's intention is to consolidate.
All of which should be music to the ears of the Association of Colleges in its on-going battle against unnecessary red tape.
Although the jury is still out on the QIA, Rosemary Clark, AoC policy manager, says there is always a danger of public money being "top sliced"
rather than spent on learners.
"Most colleges prefer that the money goes directly to them so that they can organise their own improvement rather than have another agency tell them what to do," she says.
NAVIGATING THE SUPER-HIGHWAY
Centre for Excellence in Leadership
Set up two years ago to run leadership training for college principals and other managers, in association with Ashridge management school or Lancaster university.
Annual budget: pound;12 million.
Employees: About 30.
Institute for Learning
Professional body for trainers and student teachers launched in 2002.
Encourages staff to update skills through continuing professional development. From 2007, will administer "licence to practise".
Annual budget: About pound;1m.
Learning and Skills Council
Main funder of post-16 learning in England. Has helped struggling colleges through its learning initiative development fund, but will have less say once Quality Improvement Agency starts work (see left).
Annual budget: pound;10.2 billion, of which about pound;200m goes on quality work Employees: 4,555.
Learning Support Network
Charitable status company that from April will offer programmes now run by Learning and Skills Development Agency. Likely to depend on contracts with QIA for funding.
Annual budget: pound;30m (estimate).
Employees: About 130.
Lifelong Learning UK
Sector skills council established in 2005 to set standards for training of staff in further and higher education, libraries, community and work-based learning throughout the UK. Also provides labour market intelligence.
Standards Verification UK, a subsidiary, approves teacher-training qualifications.
Annual budget: About pound;5m.
Employees: About 50.
Quality Improvement Agency
Quango due to start in April to deliver Quality Improvement Strategy in learning and skills sector by "championing excellence". Rapid response unit will be sent to struggling organisations. Inherits work from the Learning and Skills Council and DfES Standards Unit.
Annual budget: pound;92m (includes carry-over from LSDA and other organisations).
Employees: 60-70 (projected).
Three-year-old organisation within the Department for Education and Skills to help learning providers raise standards. Will mainly become a monitoring organisation .
Annual budget: pound;72m.