Jane Williams, the woman responsible for ensuring the quality of UK college teaching, talks to Frances Beckett and Linda Cohen
Jane Williams has more than pound;100 million to invest over the next three years on teaching and learning. With a staff of 30 based in Sheffield and London, the services of 40 consul- tants at her disposal and several secondees, she is a woman to be reckoned with.
And she has clear ideas of where to focus her money and her staff's energy. As she told the first DfES Teaching and Learning Conference in October 2002: "Improvement strategies focused on what happens in the classroom and workshops have up to three times the effect on achievement as those focused on management or systems." The former principal of City of Wolverhampton College, Ms Williams is the head of the new DfES Standards Unit. Her job is to oversee the implementation of Theme Two of Success for All, putting teaching and learning at the heart of what colleges do, and Theme Three, developing the sector's workforce.
She has to identify best practice in teaching methods, develop new teaching and learning frameworks, provide a large-scale training programme for sector staff, and develop a national e-learning strategy. This year the unit will pilot frameworks in business studies, science, construction and entry to employment. During 2004-05 she plans to concentrate on health and social care, ICT, maths and land-based further education and training. The aim is to develop teaching and learning materials, supported by good practice guides and training.
She has identified "too much weak or mediocre practice" and says: "We're going to see if improved learning materials can have a perceptible impact on learner performance and success. Everyone agrees there is a need for improved Level 1 and 2 materials for 16-18 year-old learners."
The Standards Unit aims to build on existing expertise and will work closely with the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and the Inspectorates (Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate). A regional network of co-ordinators and advanced practitioners is being set up to act as mentors and will manage best practice networks. The goal is to establish a national network of practitioners, which will identify and disseminate good practice.
Ms Williams insists: "This is not about micromanaging teacher lesson plans, but about improving the materials and support available to teachers for them to do the best they can for learners. We want teachers to feel part of what the Standards Unit is doing and to give active feedback."
On Theme Three, developing the sector's workforce, Ms Williams is negotiating with the consortium of management trainers running the Leadership College. It will be available not just to college principals, but to all managers and to future leaders and managers. There will be a particular emphasis on increasing the diversity of leaders and managers in the sector.
There will be no purpose-built headquarters. Conferences, training sessions and meetings will be held on the partners' premises or elsewhere. There will also be what Ms Williams calls "a significant virtual college to support the sector".
The creation of the college has been welcomed by the colleges and their representatives, who feel their voices have been listened to during extensive consultations.
Leaders and managers are not the only ones who need training: Ms Williams'
unit is expected to ensure that the whole workforce has the proper skills and qualifications. One of the headline targets for colleges' three-year development plans is to improve the professional qualifications for teachers and lecturers.
By 2010, all FE college teachers, apart from new entrants, should be qualified to teach. New full-time entrants will be expected to gain the appropriate qualification within two years, while new part-timers will have four years.
By July 2006, 90 per cent of full-time and 60 per cent of part-time teachers should be qualified to teach or be enrolled on an appropriate course. Where possible, colleges should set targets to achieve a fully qualified workforce by 2005-06. Establishments that have a fully qualified workforce, full and part-time, will set targets for continuing professional development.
Success for All has a potentially explosive recommendation: to carry out strategic reviews of the quality and cost-effectiveness of post-16 learning across each LSC area.
The aim is to have a mix of provision of the right quality to drive up standards. It will lead to rationalisation, and to some work-placed providers losing their contracts. Encouraging colleges to play to their strengths has the downside that they will lose other work. Creating distinct provision for 16 to19-year-olds could mean the closure of small sixth-forms in schools.
Essex and Nottinghamshire were the two areas chosen for a simulation of strategic area reviews as part of a consultation. Each LSC will hold a review to see how well provision meets the needs of learners and employers and delivers the targets and overall policy priorities of the LSC and the Government.
Alison Webster, executive director at Essex LSC, says of the simulation in her area: "What we have done is to lay the LSC blueprint over the data we have collected to see what else needs doing." She says the importance of the strategic area review was in the collection and validation of the data by an independent consultancy. This was a huge and labour-intensive task.
Every provider was interviewed. Different data sets had to be pulled together, agreed and validated.
The collated information was put to a local implementation group of key stakeholders to make recommendations. In practice, some of the recommendations were contradictory. Ms Webster says: "The review has to be conducted with sensitivity, empathy and political awareness. We have to bear in mind issues of equality, diversity, faith and parental choice when we decide the right mix of provision."
The decisions will be taken by the local education authority and the local LSC. Ms Webster says it is vital to keep local politicians involved, as they "will not rubber-stamp other people's recommendations".
Essex has been trialling the LSC guidance. The guidance included a 'toolkit' to carry out the reviews, outlining the core elements of the process to ensure a consistent and coherent approach nationally. The results of the consultation will be published in March; each area will start its review in April 2003 so that information will be available by summer 2004 to feed into the strategic planning process for 20056.
The Standards Unit has set up a mailbox to receive comments at email@example.com