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Towards a common core of standards

It goes without saying that highly qualified and motivated staff are crucial to raising skills levels and encouraging more people into lifelong learning. Yet too many of FE's million-strong workforce are part-time or casual employees who have insufficient access to training or continuing professional development.

Major progress towards improving the skills of teachers, support staff and other learning professionals through the introduction of national occupational standards has been made in recent years. But a more concerted effort is needed if colleges and other providers are to meet the first part of the Charlotte Group's vision and offer all learners a professional service.

Not everyone realises that learning professionals work in libraries and museums as well as in colleges, universities and other workplaces. A large percentage of learning takes place away from the classrooms. It is now more important than ever to bind these disparate groups and create a workforce geared to the needs of those they serve and proud to play a part in improving the skills of the whole country.

By 2007, there will be a new post-16 teaching framework, giving teachers in England the opportunity to aim for Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills (QTLS) status. This has been identified as crucial to giving post-16 staff parity with schoolteachers.

But it is far more than just that. Qualifications do two things. They recognise skills and achievement and help engender a spirit of professionalism that will improve the education of young people and adults, wherever they choose to learn.

While we are short of accurate data on the lifelong learning workforce, we know that the average age is 48. Therefore, more than half will reach retirement within 10 years. Unless we make teaching for lifelong learning a more attractive career option for new entrants and work harder to retain people, learning providers will face real skills shortages in the very near future.

Lifelong Learning UK, the new sector skills council, is developing a "climbing frame" of qualifications that recognises skills and past achievements of those in the sector and helps staff wishing to move between jobs.

The climbing frame will show clearly the skills people need for work in different parts of the post-16 sector. There will be more opportunities for teaching careers and easier pathways to new jobs without people having to jump unnecessary hurdles.

Today's technician could easily be tomorrow's teacher or college manager.

Similarly, trainers and lecturers could retrain as librarians or archivists. There are big differences between the various parts of the sector, but maybe they are not as great as people think. We need frameworks that recognise existing skills and can build on them to meet the demands of new jobs.

Future training and qualifications will be tailored to suit different parts of the sector, but built around a common core of standards that emphasise the most important features of teaching and supporting learning.

In the same way that employers should regard training as a right of their employees, so learning providers should recognise the benefits of creating a workforce that is better trained and equipped to respond to the challenges posed by different learners.

In the consultation meetings we held last year, prior to setting up LLUK, one employer said learning to learn is the most important skill people acquire in a lifetime.

Similarly, it is only through people learning to respect learning professionals, who in turn are highly-qualified, that we will generate new ideas and approaches to learning that satisfy our ever-expanding market.

David Hunter is chief executive of Lifelong Learning UK

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