At the Association of Colleges (AoC) conference, held in Stratford "“ upon Avon this week, the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) announced the formation of a new improvement body to improve the Further Education sector qualitatively, both for students, teachers and for employers, addressing concerns regarding the future course of the qualifications and their assessment.

The Chief Executive of the LSDA, Mr. Thompson, spoke to the assembled audience of college principals, educators and assorted administrative representatives of the concerns that many have expressed on the somewhat fragmented nature of the sector and the need to further specify the areas in which qualification provision can be improved both from the point of view of potential employers and from the standpoint of the consumer; to whit, the student.

Meeting the Needs of the Students and the Economy

Mr. Thompson began by addressing the need to change the focus of the sector which, for much of the previous decade, has been focused on growth, often for growth's sake. He highlighted the need to return the focus more squarely upon the needs and wants of the student and the employer, and iterated what was to become a recurrent theme in his address; namely that the primary and fundamental task of all those working within the FE sector was to make the world "a better place".

In the past, according the Mr. Thompson, there has been some inertial resistance to new training and movement within the sector, and he called on those present to join a general opening of minds to new ideas to carry training and educating forward with the changing times. This is necessary given the metamorphosing face of the economy and the new training demands that are the result of a post - industrial economic stage.

The Basics of the Quality Improvement Agency

Having introduced the challenges facing FE in the coming months and years, he introduced the newest development of the LSDA, namely the Quality Improvement Agency (the QIA), and outlined the basic principles upon which it will operate.

The first of these is the quest for greater clarity in the sector, encouraging agencies to work more efficiently together in the promotion of self "“ improvement in training provision. A certain amount of self motivation is looked for in the sector "“ in various different statements and opinions given at the conference, there was a broad consensus that a greater degree of local autonomy of policy and strategy was desirable, especially if it were to be properly funded and recognised by the government and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

In a society that Mr. Thompson referred to as being driven and conditioned towards being "risk "“ averse", the QIA will also seek to accelerate the rate of improvement for service provision and qualification development. As part of the white paper on Lifelong Learning, the new agency will also form up in support of considered and agreed reforms, and will hope to steer the sector towards a stage of self "“ improvement that would eventually allow it to be entirely self "“ regulated.

One Strong Voice

In a remarkable visual tool, Mr. Thompson brought out in series upon the projector screen the logos of each of the various organisations that work within the FE sector, which certainly represented a healthy cluster for the audience to watch fade in. He argues that the QIA will help in simplifying this, and thus bring about the happy situation whereby the sector would be able to speak and act with a single voice.

He was careful to stress the continuing importance of consultation both in the formation of this new agency and its subsequent actions. The vision for the QIA is of an organisation that listens and learns from the experiences of the sector, and shapes matters logically and coherently. He mentioned the vast quantity of data that is available "“ indeed, he suggested that there can sometimes be too much data, and stated that the QIA would seek to use the intelligence sensibly, referring to T.S. Elliot's comment on losing wisdom through gaining knowledge.

In the coming months, the Foster Review will report on the progress of the sector, and amongst the questions asked will naturally be the value that the public are getting for their tax pounds being spent. With the Leitch Review being more quietly conducted by the Treasury to determine the skills required for the economy in 2020, the near future will do much to shape the future of education and training in Britain. Mr. Thompson welcomes this challenge, and looks forward to the QIA proving an invaluable weapon in the sector's armoury for success.

Jethro Marsh

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