Trouble-shooters to boost quality
Education consultants and advisers are invited to bid for contracts to work with the new Quality Improvement Agency. Big names understood to be interested include Nord Anglia and Capita.
The rapid-response unit is one of three improvement measures planned by the agency, which is due to take over from the Learning and Skills Development Agency in April.
The main programme of the QIA will be a system of "peer support", which has been piloted extensively by the LSDA. Stuggling colleges will be encouraged to team up with those which have shown outstanding achievement.
The third strand of the work will be the creation of new "teaching and learning communities". Modelled on a successful scheme in Northern Ireland, it encourages staff to use the internet to share ideas and good practice.
Andrew Thompson, chief executive of the QIA, is confident colleges will welcome the initiatives. He said: "It is about self-help and mutual support, not outside intervention. Our job will be to identify weaknesses and encourage people to take action and improve."
Weak colleges and departments are under considerable pressure since the Learning and Skills Council said that from 2008 it will stop paying for any courses judged to be poor.
When the creation of the QIA was announced last year, college leaders were concerned that it would be yet another body duplicating the work of other quangos and non-departmental government bodies.
Steps are being taken to prevent this. The Department for Education and Skills post-16 standards unit will be radically reduced to a small team of civil servants, and the Learning and Skills Council will cease all quality improvement work, concentrating on funding issues.
Bill Rammell, further and higher education minister, has said he wants the tasks of all national learning and skills organisations rationalised and duplication of work eliminated.
The first step towards this was the announcement of the merger of the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate.
Under the new regime, there will be clear demarcation lines. Inspectors will assess quality, the QIA will take action to improve colleges where necessary, and the LSC will stick to funding-related quality assurance.
Much of what the QIA will do is shaped on current best practice, said Mr Thompson. "We know people work best and improve most when they work alongside fellow professionals. Much of the work is similar to the school improvement partnerships, where we have seen such benefits.
"Those colleges at risk will welcome these measures, and it will be more about them asking us for help than us imposing on them. People running these organisations aren't fools. They don't want to do poor work, nor do they want to see it taken away."