There are currently 25 providers with beacon status, 13 colleges and 12 work-based institutions. But of these, only one is a general further education college (the other colleges being sixth form or tertiary).
Now the proposal is to ease up on the rules to enable more colleges, possibly as many as 50 or 60, to achieve the status.
Beacon status (not to be confused with the beacon awards run by the Association of Colleges) is given to institutions which deliver high-quality teaching and learning, and demonstrate excellent or good management. As a condition of their status, and extra funding, they are required to share good practice with others.
Barnfield college, in Luton, is the only general FE college so far to meet the demanding beacon criteria, and joined the elite tier of providers in April.
Under the existing criteria, providers must have a minimum of four curriculum areas with a grade 1, and the top grade for leadership. But now the DfES and Learning and Skills Council are proposing to accept a grade 1 or 2 for leadership and management, and at least two-thirds of curriculum areas with a grade 1 or 2.
"When we became the first general FE college to be awarded beacon status, we thought others would follow," said Fintan Donohue, Barnfield's vice-principal. "But because they haven't got any other beacon colleges, they have decided to lower the criteria so more colleges will achieve it.
We will be the first and last genuine beacon college."
He said the proposed new criteria could produce 50 to 60 FE colleges with beacon status on current inspection results. "I accept the imperative of engaging more GFE colleges, but I question whether the dilution will serve the sector well. There's a big question mark about devaluing the standard for excellence. What currency and credibility will they have with colleagues in the sector?"
Judith Norrington, the AoC's director of curriculum and quality, said: "We celebrate those with beacon status, but we support any approach that provided for a wider range of organisations."