THE GOVERNMENT this week signalled its intention to shift the spotlight of reform to the post-16 sector, using the Queen's annual speech to Parliament to announce sweeping changes to further education and training.
The speech foreshadowed a major new Bill, to be published this autumn, which will set out plans to scrap the Further Education Funding Council and the business-led training and enterprise councils and replace them - in England - with a new super-quango: the Learning and Skills Council.
The new body which will oversee all education and training for the sector (except for school sixth forms and higher education), will be supported by 47 regional councils.
The reforms mark an attempt to overturn the market-led reforms ushered in by the Major government in 1993, when FE colleges were given independence from local education authorities and responsibility for state-funded training was handed over to the new TECs.
Ministers will seek to use the reforms to stamp New Labour's personality on the sector, with a view to creating a coherent structure for lifelong learning.
Mirroring policies already in place in the schools sector, new powers will be created to enable the Education Secretary David Blunkett to send in "hit squads" to run failing colleges. In extreme cases, colleges could be subject to takeover by the private sector, while in some parts of the country "tertiary education action zones" will be introduced.
Responsibility for college inspections will be handed over to the Office for Standards in Inspection, under the direction of Chris Woodhead, who appears to have beaten off attempts to limit his new role in the sector.
Mr Woodhead was also reported to be in the midst of another "turf war" with ministers over whether he should take overall responsibility for a new body inspecting the quality of nursery education and childcare provision.
A new body, currently dubbed "Oftot", will combine the work currently done by council social services (which inspect the safety of childcare) and OFSTED. It will be introduced in a new health Bill which will also tighten up regulation on children's and old people's homes. And in a separate Bill, health ministers will give up to 50,000 children in local authority care new rights covering housing, education and training.
According to a report in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Woodhead is said to be resisting an attempt by education ministers to appoint an independent head of Oftot. Mr Woodhead, who has already been charged with ultimate responsibility, is believed to be arguing that the appointment should be left to him.
But elsewhere, ministers seemed intent on raising the spectre of Mr Woodhead's robust methods of inspection to chivvy up recalcitrant education authorities. Schools minister Estelle Morris told chief education officers, gathered for a conference in Warwick, that they should consider putting out services to private tender to test their quality, rather than wait and risk them being failed by the inspectors.
Concern over standards surfaced in a very different context, following last week's acquittal of Renate Williams, the drama teacher accused of seducing a teenage pupil. Miss Williams admitted she had begun to crack under the strain of her new job at a Worcestershire boarding school, claiming she had failed to receive support and mentoring promised by the school. The case has raised concern that many newly-qualified teachers in the independent sector are not given enough support.
This week... l Fanfare for Queen's Speech... l The birth of 'OFTOT'... l Teacher in sex case accuses school