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Why David Bell cannot ignore us

Inevitably, schools took the lion's share of media coverage of Ofsted's annual report earlier this month. In fact, one could have been forgiven for failing to spot that the chief inspector even mentioned further education colleges.

I am not surprised by this fleeting acknowledgment of the performance of the FE sector, but I am disappointed.

Of course, it is right that childcare and school inspection form the bulk of Ofsted's day-to-day duties. However, a sector like ours with four million learners and 400,000 lecturers deserves more than a passing reference.

I am determined that we do more to highlight what is going on in FE. In fact, there were two missed opportunities here: first, the chief inspector was quite right to highlight the class divide in educational achievement - but he did not explain the crucial role of FE in narrowing that chasm.

Currently, around 36 per cent of learners in colleges are from disadvantaged backgrounds. FE is playing a crucial role in keeping them in education and acting as a springboard into university and work.

Second, we are on the verge of a series of major education an-nouncements in the run-up to a likely May general election.

What do the 14-19 white paper, the Skills white paper and the Youth green paper have in common? We expect they will need to put FE at the cornerstone of learning if they are to succeed. FE is right at the heart of these reforms, providing the vital link between the needs, wants and aspirations of individuals and of employers.

The opportunity for FE is considerable and I believe the sector can seize it. Headlines have unfairly drawn attention to a minority of poorly performing colleges when quality is improving. The proportion of colleges providing excellent or very good education stands at almost one in five, up from one in seven last year. More than half provide education that is good, very good or excellent.

Often, the skills individuals develop in FE are of immediate value in the labour market. And, of course, the establishment of the new quality-improvement body will help us to achieve more of the gains we are looking for.

But, just as importantly, we have in place two complementary strategies to achieve the improvements in our weaker institutions that we all want to see. These are the "agenda for change" and the review of FE, and both build on the impact of Success for All.

The review of the future role of FE colleges, which Sir Andrew Foster is conducting, will consider the sector's future direction, purpose and structure. Sir Andrew submits his report to me and the Secretary of State later in the year and I am looking forward to it.

"Agenda for change" is an accelerated reform programme, focused on swiftly addressing the obstacles to raising standards identified by college principals themselves. It addresses five themes:quality, funding, efficiency, data and skills, all aimed at improving the reputation of colleges. Each of these has its own task group, with people from the Learning and Skills Council working alongside colleagues from over 60 colleges.

We are building on our collective experience and expertise about what works and what needs to be changed. This in-cludes studying the measures principals and their teams took, after disappointing inspections, to transform their colleges and achieve Beacon status.

We expect the "agenda for change" to include recommendations on how, together, we can make important improvements. The same urgency is being applied to the other themes, so proposals for simplifying the data and information systems that take up much of principals' time are also firmly on the agenda.

I am confident a timetable is in place to accelerate the improvement we are already seeing in colleges. My confidence is enhanced because "agenda for change" was borne out of discussions with colleges and because the LSC is genuinely working with the sector to bring change about.

Perhaps by the time of next year's Ofsted annual report, FE colleges will be in the headlines for the right reasons.

Christopher Banks is chairman of the Learning and Skills Council

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