COLLEGES overestimate their own performance and often give themselves higher grades than they deserve, according to a Further Education Funding Council report into self-assessment.
Nearly 30 per cent of the curriculum grades awarded by inspectors were one or two grades lower than those the college had given, according to the report.
By contrast, only 7 per cent of colleges underestimated the quality of the courses.
"It is not uncommon for colleges to have a grade profile where the proportion of grade 1 and 2s is more than 10 per cent higher than the national average of grades awarded by inspectors," says the report, which blames inaccurate classroom assessment for the overgenerous grades.
"It is clear that there is a need for more training and practice in lesson observation.
"There is a danger that observers focus on teachers' performance instead of students' learning. A preoccupation with the mechanics and props of teaching can also get in the way of clear judgments about the quality of teaching and learning."
Inspectors found that the colleges which were best at judging themselves were characterised by active leadership, governor involvement, clear guiding principles, a well-understood methodology and staff development. These colleges were good at identifying and addressing strengths and weaknesses which involved all members of staff.
Most colleges found self-assessment "demanding but constructive", the report notes, but some "still have difficulties". A common complaint was the amount of paperwork involved.
"Even in colleges with good records and good documentation, the paperwork generated by self-assessment can be excessive."
The problem had become so acute in one college that the management had resolved to halve the amount of paperwork produced during the next round of self assessment.
The reports themselves often suffered from the same problem. Despite guidance from the FEFC to keep them concise and no more than 50 pages long, one college's self-assessment report weighed in at 284 pages - eight times as long as the shortest, of 35 pages.
The best reports were clear, succinct and had strong evidence to support their grades and findings. The worst were overlong and suffered from poor layout and too much detail.
Overall, the FEFC report says that colleges have made good progress since self-assessment became a compulsory part of the inspection process in September 1997. "At its best, self-assessment is proving to be a powerful mechanism for improvement in further education."