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After addressing the assemblage of college principals and administrators at the Association of Colleges 16 "“ 19 Summer Conference on the embryonic Quality Improvement Agency (QIA), Mr. Andrew Thompson of the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) faced questions from the audience regarding his statements and the project as a whole from the delegates.

With the hottest of debate generally reserved for the funding issues that have been so publicly aired by all concerned in recent months, together with the popular Tomlinson Report on 14 "“ 19 education and its call for an overarching diploma, which the government rejected, the delegates still raised important and thoughtful concerns regarding the creation of another agency.

Why Have a Standards Unit?

The first college principal to stand and ask Mr. Thompson a question raised the most fundamental of concerns; namely, does the sector really require a standards supervisory body, either at present or in the near future under the aegis of the Quality Improvement Agency?

Mr. Thompson, responding from his seat at the table on the raised stage at the front of the main hall, responded that such an agency would prove invaluable and was definitely needed. He pointed out that the Department of Education and Skills (DfES) would then be better able to concentrate on civil service issues of policy advice to ministers, and less burdened with standards monitoring which it is not ideally placed to engage in.

He sees the QIA taking over this role, and states that this will serve as a measure of the performance of the sector. He sensibly pointed out that, if the QIA works well and is a success, then no "“ one will question its creation, and that this experimentation is necessary.

The Student's One Chance

The next question raised was from another college principal who wished to raise the issue of experimentation in the sector. She agreed with Mr. Thompson's earlier statement that the society within which the sector now operates has become somewhat "risk averse", but did not entirely agree with the statement that this was mainly caused by a fear of failing inspections. She pointed out that this was also partially caused by the realisation that the students in their care are only given this one chance at education, and asked Mr. Thompson how this fear would be reconciled with the experimentation in policy and strategy that improvements would demand.

Mr. Thompson replied that the issue was too complex for sweeping assessments in response to this, and stated that it would depend substantially on the experiment being conducted. He pointed out that a teacher or educator was constantly experimenting, and said that there could be no justification for not experimenting; merely that there would have to be reasonable limits imposed.

Who Else Can We Learn From?

The final question came from Nigel Robins of Cirencester College, who drew a laugh from those assembled by his pronunciation of the new agency's acronym QIA as "queer" "“ which, as Mr. Thompson assured the delegates, will not be the standard pronunciation. Mr. Robins shared his misgivings for the over "“zealous application of "best business practices" in the FE sector, although he admitted that there were often benefits to be gained as well.

He called for a greater continuity and consistency of policy, rather than what he perceives to be the current situation when government policy is changed when a minister returns from a "foreign junket with a bright idea". He asked Mr. Thompson if there is a plan within the QIA framework to tap into overseas successes and experience.

In answering this question and statement, Mr. Thompson was somewhat vague. He reiterated that the better sharing of information and careful gathering and use of information would play a large part, and that "self "“ improvement" would be encouraged. He recognised the need to both influence policy and practice and, when pressed further, drew upon the example of the Finnish education system's transformation following the Second World War; however, he did not specifically allude to a policy of overseas consultation, which may prove to be an area in which the QIA needs further attention.

Jethro Marsh

What would you have asked Mr. Thompson? Tell us in the FE Blog

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