Strong leadership at every level is critical if England wants to have a world-class education and skills system, says Matthew Coffey, national director of learning and skills at Ofsted.

There is no doubt there is a great deal of good and outstanding provision in the learning and skills sector, but much work and improvement are still needed, especially in FE colleges.

While the overall effectiveness of all learning and skills providers has improved slightly over the past three years, the proportion of colleges judged inadequate or satisfactory is the highest that it has been. In fact, 35 per cent of colleges are now less than good compared with 30 per cent at the end of 2010.

This means 1.5 million learners are attending providers judged to be less than good, compared with 1.3 million last year – that’s about another 200,000 learners.

Ofsted’s annual report highlights the weak leadership and governance in providers that have declined since their last inspection.”

Last year, we judged four colleges to be inadequate; this year there were 13. And those 13 are serving more than 82,000 learners. This is not acceptable.

So why are so many learners in FE provision that is less than good?

Ofsted’s annual report highlights the weak leadership and governance in providers that have declined since their last inspection.

Conversely, all the providers that had improved to outstanding overall had particularly effective leadership that focused clearly on improving teaching and learning.

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw focused on leadership because, as he said, “leaders change things. Leaders move things on. Leaders determine the culture and ethos of the institution.”

Rising unemployment and slow economic growth present the learning and skills sector with enormous challenges, especially when supporting learners at what is, for many of them, a pivotal time in their life.

It is therefore critical that providers offer courses and qualifications that ensure their learners have a greater chance of progressing to further training or employment. Leaders therefore need to focus on the usefulness and not the quantity of qualifications.

Current incentives largely ignore the progress made by learners and the value post-16 education adds. Funding clearly needs to change.

But my lasting memory of the German visit is the simplicity of the post-16 education system. There are lessons for us to learn.”

We have all heard a great deal about “the German system” and particularly their approach to apprenticeships. Sir Michael and I visited a few weeks ago to see for ourselves. Youth unemployment in Germany is one of the lowest in the EU and has been continually declining.

Apprenticeships have a high profile and are the main route to post-compulsory education and training for the 70 per cent of school-leavers who do not enter higher education.

In the UK, just 7 per cent of young people aged 16 to 18 participated in apprenticeships in 2011.

Information and guidance is well-established, whereas a recent Ofsted survey found careers’ guidance on apprenticeships in England to be weak. We aren’t Germany, and as Doug Richard commented recently, we can’t simply adopt a system from one country to another.

But my lasting memory of the German visit is the simplicity of the post-16 education system. There are lessons for us to learn.

Improving young people’s skills in English and maths is one of the many challenges for the learning and skills sector as a whole, especially when considering nearly 80 per cent of those who leave school at 16 without achieving a grade C or above in these subjects at GCSE still have not achieved this standard by 19.

We have therefore highlighted the need for more teachers with the specialist expertise required to support these learners.

We know there are many good, outstanding and sometimes genuinely world-class providers in the sector. I attended a FE college. My youngest daughter attends one now and I have inspected many of them over the past 10 years.

We know that qualification success rates are generally high. However, we do not know the extent to which these qualifications enhance their careers or support them in gaining employment or progressing to further education and training. We therefore need to broaden the systems we all use to measure the true outcomes for learners.

Matthew Coffey is the national director, learning and skills, at Ofsted