The world surrounding the venue may have been warmed by the beaming sunshine for the majority of the Association of Colleges (AoC) conference in Stratford "“ upon "“ Avon this week, but inside the main lecture hall the assembled educators" minds drifted to the future, and the challenges that lie in wait.

Mr. Andrew Thompson, the Chief Executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, spoke to the delegates on Monday midday focusing his address on the upcoming formation of the Quality Improvement Agency (the QIA), but took the opportunity provided to draw to people's attention to some of the systemic challenges that exist.

The basic tasks of the nascent agency include the promotion of self "“ improvement, the acceleration of improvements and the promotion of clarity of purpose within the sector. One of the key benefits that he hopes will come of the QIA will be the further unification of the sector's approach to the challenges faced; however, he also raised issues that went far beyond issues of funding and centralisation versus local control.

Sharing and Trust

In a society that he describes as becoming "risk averse" through conditioning of the public mindset, he called on the sector "“ particularly those responsible for inspection "“ to better recognise the need to move beyond the "ticking the boxes" levels of compliance to requirements. A great tool in this, he stated, would be the furthering of self "“ improvement.

Mr. Thompson also turned to the issue of diversity, and attacked it with a new definition in mind. The distinction and discrimination that he had in mind in this context was not simply that based on race, creed, belief or sex, but the desperate requirement to conform in inspections. He was sure, he said, that those in the audience were very well aware of the pressures attendant to an inspection visit, and that this pressure can often lead to the "tick the box" conformity of response.

This was a phenomenon that was driving what he termed "an orthodoxy which drives a mediocrity". The necessity of passing the inspection causes staff, in this light, to the mentality he mentioned previously. Mr. Thompson was at pains to point out that this was not intended as an attack on inspectors in any way; he is well aware that inspectors are also trying to do their part to improve standards in the sector. He calls rather for a greater awareness of the need to innovate and share the best practices for successful FE provision, and called for OFSTED (the inspection body) to conduct their inspections based more on student outcomes rather than processes and systems.

Get By With a Little Help from Your Friends and Yourself

The need to encourage and stimulate co "“ operation within the sector was also recognised by Mr. Thompson. He highlighted that both within the English system and elsewhere there were valuable lessons to be learnt and shared. He mentioned in particular the successes enjoyed in the Scottish sector, with both their unified approach to HE and FE and in the more coherent nature of their curriculum provision.

This is not to say that he desires a completely co "“ dependent system to be put in place, as this could well lead to problems all of its own. He stated that one of the main challenges facing the QIA was to encourage "self "“ improvement" on the part of the colleges and training providers, as well as self "“ improvement and motivation for change needing to come from within the individual. He gave the opinion that the "if only" arguments occasionally used by frustrated educators "“ such as "if only the students were better" or "if only the students were enrolled in a different way" "“ had to be countered with a recognition that the entire surrounding environment and world is not going to change instantaneously.

With the numerous reviews due to be aired in the near future, which should see the future course of the FE sector further clarified, Mr. Thompson calls for better transfer mechanisms of good practices, more information sharing and co "“ operation and a more unified FE sector that will meet the needs and challenges of Britain as we move into the 21st Century.

Jethro Marsh

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