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First Europe, then the world

There is no stopping Stow College, which has won top accolade in the business excellence `Oscars'

There is no stopping Stow College, which has won top accolade in the business excellence `Oscars'

Stow College believes it is simply the best - perhaps even a world- beater.

Despite a year of trouble and strife, which has seen it fall foul of the Scottish Funding Council and pull out of the Glasgow city centre college merger, Stow has just won the top accolade in the business excellence "Oscars" - the 2008-09 Scottish Award for Business Excellence. It then went on to become the first college in Scotland to win Gold in a European- standard programme which recognises outstanding performance.

Whatever doubts the SFC might harbour, Quality Scotland, which promotes excellence in the private, public and voluntary sectors, was in no doubt that it deserved the awards, which are based on the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM).

Dave Bradley, Quality Scotland's chief executive, commented: "Stow College has constantly shown a real commitment to continuous improvement over the years and is a benchmark of excellence within the further education sector."

An indication of the company Stow keeps is reflected in the other award winners - Sir Sandy Crombie of Standard Life, the NHS, Aegon UK Corporate Pensions and the Sodexo food and facilities management giant.

Bob McGrory, Stow's principal, said beating such company to take the overall award was "completely unexpected". The next step, he says, is to compete in Europe where the college would be up against the likes of BMW. He also points out that the EFQM is very similar to the "Baldridge" model of business excellence, which operates in the Americas, so recognition at this level puts the college on track to realise its ambition of being "world-class" by 2010.

Even the taste of triumph, however, is no time for too much self- congratulation. "This is no time to rest on our laurels," Dr McGrory said. "Our continuous improvement strategy is an on-going process, as we strive to maintain this standard for future generations."

Alex McLean, one of the vice-principals, says the exercise of preparing for the EFQM has made the college take "a more rigorous and systematic approach to the way we do things." He added: "The awards are important, but what matters more is that they are driving forward continuous improvement in quality, which is what it's really about."

Ian McCallum, head of quality improvement at Stow, says the drive for excellence also requires the college to gather much more data on its performance than it otherwise would, leading it to improve on any shortcomings.

Stow is certainly "data-rich," even by the standards of the vast array of performance indicators which dazzle the FE sector. It knows about absenteeism rates, staff turnover, the number of staff promoted from within, how many library books are issued and how much is allocated to learning support as a proportion of its WSUMS (the weighted units of measurement, based on learning hours, which is used to allocate funding).

The scale of Stow's ambition is reflected in its decision to call in FE guru Sir Bernard O'Connell, who was principal of an EFQM European award- winning college in England, to carry out a management development audit. This revealed that the management was not as effective as it thought it was: there was "limited knowledge and ownership" of the college's 12 values and commitments, "communication with staff was not as effective as the principalship believed" and "staff were not being given full opportunities to express their perceptions."

Dr McGrory said the response was to "reorganise the senior management structure to make it more customer-focused, cutting down on the number of committee meetings and making them more empowered. Five priorities were identified for improvement - staff communication, surveying staff perceptions, organisational values, lesson observation and operational planning.

But the surveys carried out with students revealed a high degree of satisfaction. Over 80 per cent were generally happy with the college's courses, teaching and facilities - the exception being toilets and washrooms which got the thumbs-up from only 59 per cent of students.

Dr McGrory believes the EFQM process is more thorough than inspectorate visits. "It uses European benchmark standards," he says. "It cannot be made up as you go along or be about riding hobby-horses."

The awards for Stow are a suitable note on which to end a notable year: in September, the college celebrates its 75th birthday.

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