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Benchmarks on the road to self-improvement

The recent Competitiveness White Paper suggests the establishment of benchmarking networks for small- and medium-sized businesses. These would help small companies to improve their performance by a process of selective imitation of each other's strengths.

The benchmarking idea, possibly the latest flash in the pan from management literature, is one which could readily be transferred to the further education sector. It would support the move towards more rigorous self-assessment on which the Further Education Funding Council is conducting consultations.

Benchmarking involves self-improvement through the setting of a standard to be achieved in comparison with other performers. Possibly the trickiest part of the process is finding the right organisation with which to make the comp- arison.

How often, when visiting another college with a good reputation for a particular innovation, or listening to a presentation about yet another wonderful initiative, have you thought: "I've been doing this for years"?

Fortunately, colleges are now in a position to gain from the pain suffered in supplying information to FEFC. Good quality information is now being published which will help them assess their performance, and to improve it in partnership with others. Industrial espionage is not necessary.

Through inspection reports and council circulars, the FEFC is making available information on student enrolments, examination performance, quality assessments, financial allocations, and efficiency measures. It should be relatively simple, therefore, to identify a college of similar size and type which is performing more efficiently, more effectively, or more responsively, at least in some aspect of its operation. Given the nature of local competition, it may well need to be some distance away.

Benchmarking involves more than a visit to chat to the principal and marketing manager. It should be a carefully planned investigation, possibly of one limited area of operation, such as an area of the curriculum, or an aspect of personnel practice. Choose the feature to be assessed, then decide on the questions which will help to reach the heart of the matter. For instance, an inspection report may have suggested that employers are insufficiently involved in the work of the college.

Decide in what way greater involvement would be helpful. Is it to increase their impact on curriculum planning? To earn money from selling customised courses to them? To involve them in student assessment? What are the relevant questions in comparing another college's practice with your own? What information needs do you have?

A good benchmarking visit will be like a mini-inspection; both partners will be carefully prepared; they will learn from each other, and the experience should lead to improved quality of performance on both sides.

A careful review of FEFC publications should help to find a college which is performing better in the selected area. Inspection reports are a rich source of intelligence on such matters. This may come as a surprise to those who never read beyond the summary page and grade tables.

The chief inspector's annual report summarises the grades awarded to all colleges during inspections. In the autumn, the first set of information from the council's six performance indicators is due for publication. It will be followed by the publication of comparative management statistics, following the consultations in circular 9528. All these publications provide a useful source of benchmarking data.

Most colleges are still happy to give time to colleagues in sharing good practice, and not all of them seek to profit financially from the process. Such partnerships could grow into networks with benchmarking as a key objective.

This would greatly assist the process of rigorous self-assessment and quality improvement which is envisaged by the FEFC inspectorate for the next round of inspections. It could also re-create the type of supportive network which many colleges lost when their LEA links were broken. This time, the network would be based on shared characteristics and a desire to improve, rather than simple proximity.

The recently established Urban Colleges Network provides a good example of the possibilities, but there are many other combinations which would be fruitful. At the same time, colleges might demonstrate to those businesses in the DTI's benchmarking networks how to make best use of their experience.

There are some things which industry can learn from education. The next logical step would be benchmarking exercises between industry and education networks. The possibilities for extending such learning are unlimited.

Beryl Pratley is an inspector with the Further Education Funding Council

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