As the school sector was this week getting used to the first statutory inspections of education authorities (page 4), colleges were being treated to the first inspection commissioned by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council which was published today.
The report by HMI on behalf of the funding council gave a generally glowing account of Motherwell College, although it did warn the management that staff need to be more involved in decision-making. Weaknesses are also highlighted in the way courses are reviewed.
But, having scrutinised 60 per cent of Motherwell's courses, met 480 students and 230 staff, observed lecturers at work and talked to 20 employers, HMI highlighted 22 areas of the college's work as demonstrating good practice. The inspection concluded that 89 per cent of the lessons observed were good or very good. Richard Millham, principal of Motherwell College, described the two-week inspection as "particularly thorough".
The college is one of the many that have been battling for the past few years to get their houses in good financial order, a battle which has led it into several bruising encounters with the unions. Motherwell is now at the stage where it has won the ultimate accolade from HMI: "A businesslike approach permeated most aspects of educational activity."
The top mark of very good went to the college's efforts to promote wider access and inclusion and the arrangements for students with learning difficulties. Educational leadership, curriculum support and quality assurance were rated good. But quality improvement was judged to be merely fair, reflecting criticism that "there was little systematic evaluation of learning and teaching."
The inspectors' main recommendations are for th course review processes to be made more effective and systematic, and for staff to be made more aware of how the college reaches its decisions on educational matters.
The report noted: "A few staff perceived that financial stability and student numbers were issues of greater concern than the quality of the student experience and the raising of achievement levels." The inspectors add quickly that "this was not the college's agreed policy."
The HMI found there were differences of opinion between the senior management and several staff about student achievement. "Strategic objectives emphasised the importance of student achievement but a minority of staff considered that declining student achievement levels were inevitable given the college's focus on widening access and social inclusion."
By contrast, the inspectors go out of their way to praise Motherwell's support for wider access and inclusion, which they say is "a major strength." Inclusiveness is "embedded within the college culture," according to the report, and would-be students who might normally be expected to shun college were "actively targeted." The quality of the learning resource centre for students is described as "outstandingly good."
The report states pointedly: "The college should ensure that all lecturing staff are fully aware that the setting of student enrolment targets is not inconsistent with its commitment to address and improve student achievement."
The Motherwell inspection also looked in detail at eight subject areas, most aspects of which were judged to be very good or good. The rating of fair was reserved largely for the shortcomings in the quality improvement regime. There were no unsatisfactory findings.
Howard McKenzie, director of corporate development at the college, said the HMI recommendations "will be acted on swiftly".