The government has announced plans to "fast forward" reforms in further education, writes Tony Tysome.
Lifelong learning minister Margaret Hodge said this week that the Learning and Skills Council was to set up "test-beds" around the country for colleges and other further education providers to fast-track key strategies outlined in the government's Success for All plans for the sector.
The test-beds will allow the LSC to evaluate the effectiveness of the new policies, which include colleges helping to deliver more higher education, Ms Hodge told delegates at the Learning and Skills Development Agency's summer conference in London this week.
The minister also announced the creation of a "gatekeeper group" to help reduce bureaucracy in the sector and to champion "light touch" quality control.
The group, made up from college and other provider representatives and chaired by Audit Commission head Sir Andrew Foster, would have "real teeth" and a direct line to education secretary Charles Clarke and LSC chairman Bryan Sanderson, she said.
Ms Hodge told the conference that ongoing strategic area reviews of post-16 provision were an "opportunity we cannot afford to miss" to transform the sectorso that every young person would have access to a wide choice of quality education and training.
The wider choice included pathways to higher education, such as modern apprenticeships, and higher education programmes in further education, such as foundation degrees.
Ms Hodge told college heads: "You are well placed to recruit those for whom higher education has not in the past been a natural choice, such as adults with work, caring or other responsibilities who want to study close to home. You also have expertise in working with local employers. We will look to you to develop this in partnership with higher education institutions."
Responding to a question from a delegate, Ms Hodge said merging the LSC and the Higher Education Funding Council for England in an effort to break down barriers between the sectors was "not a viable proposition in the immediate future".
But she added: "We are working closely with the LSC towards other ways of achieving the same end."
* Sir Geoffrey Holland, former Exeter University vice-chancellor and a past permanent secretary at the Department for Education and the Department of Employment, has been appointed chairman of the Learning and Skills Development Agency. He takes over from Terry Melia in August.