The learning and Skills Improvement Service has sent a warning to private consultancies and said quality improvement programmes must rely more on further education practitioners at the cutting edge.
David Collins, who will step down as president of the Association of Colleges and take over as chief executive of the quality improvement quango on August 1, said the work of LSIS, which was launched last October, had been held back by former education staff now working in private consultancies whose knowledge could be out of date.
"It's about looking for people who are currently working in the education sector.
"Some of the programmes are being delivered by people who left the sector a long time ago, and when they were in the sector they were not necessarily at the cutting edge of training or development," he said. "We need people in the principals' qualifying programme, for example, who are at the top of the game.
"Some of the private organisations haven't spent as much time as they should in getting close to the sector and seeing who are the experts."
A breakdown of the contracts overseen by LSIS, provided earlier this year in answer to a question in the House of Lords by Baroness Sharp, a Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, shows more than Pounds 56 million in contracts to private consultants, such as Tribal, Nord Anglia and Deloitte. Some of these were using established educational organisations such as the Learning and Skills Network, as subcontractors, which raised concerns over whether funding was being wasted by using intermediaries. Dr Collins said there would still be a place for private consultancies that could demonstrate they had the best expertise, but he said there would be a greater role for those with current practical knowledge.
"In the past, LSIS has been a little too dependent on outside consultants," he said. "But within the sector we've got people we can use who are existing practitioners, experts.
"It's good news for this organisation to be close to the sector. It's good news too for groups of colleges that have an opportunity to contribute more to the sector."
Dr Collins also said LSIS needed to be more focused to ensure its programmes were achieving their aim of improving the quality of FE teaching and leadership, rather than merely hitting targets.
"Whatever LSIS does has got to have an impact, and not just on measures to do with processes," he said. "We need to know we are making a real difference to people who are learning. Things like improving success rates, higher levels of satisfaction among learners, better relationships with employers - leading, no doubt, to an increase in income - better qualified staff and more senior managers who have a relevant managerial qualification."
Management is Dr Collins's main emphasis, reflecting a desire for the organisation to offer practical advice for the day-to-day problems facing colleges, rather than concentrating on visionary leadership.
"The Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) was one of LSIS's predecessor bodies, and its professional priority was teaching leaders. But when colleges have difficulties, the problem is how good is the quality of their managers?
"It's a change of emphasis. It's not to say leadership programmes and vision are not important, but we need to deliver on the ground."
He proposes that LSIS develops a range of education-specific management qualifications with short modules that hard-pressed staff can fit into their working lives, and that build up to certificates, diplomas and even, he hopes, a masters degree in business administration in FE. The idea does not necessarily mean the FE principals' professional qualification would be under threat, although Dr Collins speculated that it might be worthwhile to allow prior experience of qualifications to be taken as credit for part of the course.
He said: "Some principals think it's absolutely excellent; others are less convinced. I'd like to have a look at it.
"There are issues about who should be doing it. I know of a principal who has just qualified with an MBA with distinction, but he's still required to do the whole of the principals' qualifying programme."
A practical, no-nonsense LSIS might come in for criticism for lacking long-term vision, but Dr Collins said there was still room for far-sighted research.
Under Roger McClure, who stepped down as chief executive earlier this month, a system of research grants for FE staff was proposed. The plans are likely to continue, and Dr Collins said the projects would not be restricted to the immediate problems of colleges and training providers but would also look to the future.
"There were some very good practitioner research projects under CEL. I want to do more of that, including blue-sky thinking. We need to do more than just solve existing problems," he said.
However, LSIS may find itself having to do less in the future. Its 2010-11 budget is to be cut by Pounds 50 million by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and it is not known if there will be further cuts from its other sponsors, the departments for Children, Schools and Families, and for Work and Pensions.
Dr Collins said some large contracts were coming to an end and it might be possible to reduce others, such as the one worth around Pounds 20 million for WorldSkills, the international vocational skills competition to be hosted by the UK in 2011.
He said LSIS will have to focus on the programmes that matter most to colleges and training providers, which he conceded was an obvious idea. "I've been going through my life making money from common sense," he said.