Colleges sometimes feel in the firing line of public service reform. The best colleges are an example to the public sector: leaders in innovation, striving for improvement, seeking new ways to attract disadvantaged students. But, too many are still identified by inspectors as in need of big improvements. Which is why the Government's Success for All strategy was widely welcomed as a practical way to improve choice, teaching and quality in further education.
Early results are encouraging: more learners are completing courses and colleges are retaining more students than before. The office of public services reform, in the Cabinet Office has been looking at the impact of Success for All. Wendy Thomson who heads the office will outline some of the findings at the Learning Skills Development Agency conference next week.
The signs are encouraging. Many providers are embracing Success for All with enthusiasm. But there are two issues impeding progress. First, are there too many initiatives and organisations trying to support colleges? Second, could colleges develop improvement strategies at a local level either individually or collectively? Many would probably answer yes to both questions.
There are a number of outstanding examples of public services working together at a local and regional level to improve delivery. This approach is helping improve performance in schools and the NHS. It could also be a valuable tool for helping colleges.
But, it is important to strike a balance between improvement being driven nationally and locally. Although there is confusion over which national agencies do what, they still have an important role to play. Employers and students can reasonably demand minimum national standards. Indeed colleges clamour for national standards in teacher training, professional development or management training. Moreover, government has to consider the skill needs of the whole economy, which means prioritising.
Inspection has a particular contribution at a national level. Most accept the benefits over the past decade, despite criticisms of the process or cost. The common inspection framework standards provide the basis for self-assessment for improvement.
But, are we doing enough to address the limitations of inspection? It is good at identifying strengths and weaknesses, but less good at explaining how standards can be improved and weaknesses overcome. This requires the imaginative expertise of college leaders and their staff.
So, training must give sufficient recognition to the importance of leaders being able to make a rigorous independent analysis of the challenges their institution faces. The best college leaders do so brilliantly already. But there are doubts about whether we have got it right for tomorrow's leaders.
Strategic research and development needs to come from the centre.
But would other initiatives benefit from better local or regional co-ordination? Further education is playing a vital role, it could do much more. Getting the right answers to these questions would help us deliver Success for All.
Sandra Ernstoff is the principal education adviser in the Prime Minister's office on public services reform. See www.pm.gov.uk outputPage249.asp