THE ordeal of annual auditing is to be reduced at 20 colleges in the biggest move against red tape since the launch of Sir George Sweeney's bureaucracy-busting taskforce.
Colleges will instead be given light-touch audits, which require less paperwork and preparation, under the Learning and Skills Council "Trust in FE" pathfinder pilots. The new approach could be extended to a further 100 colleges if successful and, eventually, across the whole sector.
It involves the annual audit of individual student records, which affect how much funding is drawn from the LSC and are crucial to college budgeting.
Sir George, principal of Knowsley Community College in Merseyside, said:
"If colleges do not have to use staff for this then they can work out ways to use the same people in new ways to improve teaching and learning.
"That is the central theme of the taskforce. As colleges, we must prove ourselves to be trustworthy once and for all."
But the LSC could have problems finding suitable general FE colleges to sign up to the light-touch approach in future because of the problems many have experienced with their management software.
The LSC has selected colleges which have been efficient in processing student data and can therefore provide a reliable test bed.
Only four are general FE, while 13 of the 20 participants are sixth-form colleges, which have experienced fewer problems with the software than the larger and more complex general FE institutions. .
Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management, said: "Many sixth-form colleges have a less complicated student profile and most of them are smaller than general FE colleges. We need to look at the problems general colleges have with their management information."
He said extending light-touch to the big annual external audit of accounts should be looked at "sooner rather than later".
He said: "My experience of external auditors is that, by and large, they deliver a poor service."
The LSC says Trust in FE is at the heart of its attempt to reduce paperwork.
The burden of auditing has been a central theme of the Cut Red Tape campaign in FE Focus, having been highlighted as a major headache by colleges.
John Harwood, chief executive of the LSC, said: "With this increased level of trust comes greater responsibility and accountability. The future of our sector is in our own hands."
The Association of Colleges says it welcomes what it sees as a genuine commitment from Mr Harwood to reduce the burden.
David Gibson, chief executive of the AoC, said: "What we want is principals spending less time filling in returns and being free to get on with running quality colleges."
Managers at Loreto College in Greater Manchester are certain the pilot will succeed.
Principal Anne Clynch said: "This means that this year a full week of student record audit, with two or three auditors, will be removed, freeing up staff time."
Pathfinder colleges listed on website www.tesfefocus.co.uk