When Sir Andrew Foster referred to the plethora of organisations circling colleges as a "galaxy of stars", he may not have realised just how crowded the FE firmament has become. New organisations such as sector skills councils as well as existing organisations are each independently updating or producing sets of standards, all designed to "raise quality".
Each set of standards may serve that organisation well and we agree that consistent standards have been essential to colleges as they rapidly improve their performance and, in doing so, force up benchmarks in a virtuous self-improvement circle.
But the proliferation of standards, each overlaid on the last, has led the Association of Colleges to pose the fundamental question - are these standards supporting colleges to improve, or are they holding colleges back?
The AoC is also concerned about the levels of bureaucracy and costs associated with some of the emerging sets of standards. They can be linked with professional membership and with audit and renewal costs. For a large college, these costs could be a real drain on resources that should be dedicated directly to teaching and training. The AoC decided to hold a seminar on standards which brought together all the agencies involved to consider how things could be simplified and made more effective.
The question is whether multiple external quality assurance is reasonable or necessary and whether emerging standards could be aligned. We would like a single-quality framework within which standards are aligned and cross-referenced. Information gathered once should be fit to serve the requirements of the external agencies and to be used many times.
The organisations we spoke to discussed the tension that exists between their own needs for quality standards and the potential these have for being burdensome and over-bureaucratic.
There was also the suggestion that the notion of an absolute standard of excellence, a concept currently being promoted by the Learning and Skills Council through its Framework for Excellence, could satisfy the needs of other agencies.
There were several examples where organisations in the room were already aligning their systems - a process that AoC welcomes. We believe this could be the start of a more systematic streamlining process and mapping of standards between organisations.
The LSC, for example, will check its own assessment of risk, based on college self-assessment reports and performance data, against the inspectors' annual independent scrutiny of the same data. This will ensure that potential areas of poor performance by colleges are identified early and that pre-emptive action is taken by the college to put it right. Just how many times do colleges have to prove themselves?
A college principal taking part in the discussion last week challenged the whole edifice of external regulation. The tail is wagging the dog, he argued. External quality assurance compliance has taken over from colleges' focus on continual self-improvement and desire to move towards self-regulation. It is the colleges themselves, he said, that should be at the heart of the process, collecting evidence for their own management purposes. It must be the colleges that take responsibility for quality improvement, thus establishing a high reputation and value in their local community.
We agree. There is sufficient evidence and data, and more than enough quality assurance processes, to satisfy any organisation as to the quality of provision. We would argue that existing external scrutiny by the Office for Standards in Education, awarding bodies and others should be more than sufficient.
But much more complexity looms on the horizon.
The LSC, for example, is about to consult on its new proposals to establish a standard of excellence, and the Qualification and Curriculum Authority and the Department for Education and Skills are preparing to introduce a new process by which partnerships of schools, colleges and other training organisations will demonstrate their capability to teach diploma courses in 2008.
Meanwhile, teachers are anticipating the development of a new teaching qualification, and principals are to be required to undertake leadership training and development.
The standards debate was timely. The galaxy could be in danger of imploding.
Maggie Scott is director of learning and quality at the Association of Colleges