Dr David Collins CBE

Mergers are not the easiest activities to achieve at the best of times but when the two organisations involved have totally different cultures - and indeed very different reasons for being – the way forward is less about merging the two than about creating something new.

This has been the situation with the bringing together of the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL) and the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) to create the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS). A charity charged with developing leadership skills for the FE sector on a self supporting basis and a commissioning quango more than ten times its size are not natural bedfellows. Nevertheless as LSIS celebrates its first birthday something new and exciting is beginning to emerge – a sector owned, comprehensive and supportive improvement service that has the simple mission to accelerate the drive for excellence and the sub-goal of helping the sector help itself.

New areas have been introduced and partnerships with other sector bodies formed – AoC and ALP are working with LSIS, for example, to develop a virtual management college for the sector with a suite of stand alone activities that can build up to formal qualifications at certificate, diploma and MBA levels; Natspec are examining ways in which learners with special needs can be better supported in mainstream provision and the 157 group are using their expertise in engaging employers to explore the future of relationships between learning and skills providers and the world of business.Given the state of the public finances, there is the small matter of a £50m reduction in budget for 2010/11 of course but the main sufferers from these cuts will be the private companies that have benefited in the past from large contracts. These come to an end in March of next year, whereupon the emphasis will shift to sector driven and delivered activities and the funding that remains – still a healthy £50m or so – will be recycled back into colleges and other learning providers.

Several moves in this direction have already taken place – most notably the practitioner research projects launched three weeks ago and the Flexibility and Innovation fund which invited proposals for innovative ways to improve the sector and which attracted almost 200 bids.

A number of new "products" have also hit the market – Leadership Toolkits for the Work based Learning, Specialist College and Adult and Community sectors, Training materials for the Safeguarding Agenda and a new online and comprehensive guide to self assessment and quality planning – all now freely available via the Excellence Gateway or LSIS websites.

Behind the scenes there has been a review of back of house activities resulting in the creation of one main site in Coventry saving £400K plus a year and the removal of 39 posts providing a further £1m + reduction in administrative costs. What’s more, the bringing in house of marketing, events and many evaluation activities currently underway will push the savings to over the £3m mark in 2010/11.

Perhaps the most exciting development of all, however, is the planned introduction of LSIS accounts in April 2010, which will give every provider of LSC funded provision a sum of money to spend on LSIS activities. Not only will this enable the whole sector to get involved in improvement activities but also to shape future demand.

The Learning and Skills sector is a remarkable success story. Over the past ten years success rates have risen steadily, skills for life targets have been reached ahead of schedule and increasing numbers of young people are seeing colleges and other learning providers as the main way in which they can improve their life chances. As the new LSIS enters its second year, despite funding cuts and increasing demands on resources, the future is bright. Working with the sector, the aim is to be even better!

Dr David Collins CBE is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS)

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