Grown-up treatment at last

New measures to simplify college inspections are finally coming into effect. Ministers promised a lighter touch approach more than three years ago, in line with the Bureaucracy Task Force recommendations. The Commons education select committee echoed the demand last year after warning ministers that colleges were being strangled by red tape and buried in paperwork.

Now, instead of an army of Ofsted inspectors banging at college doors every four years, annual snapshots of progress will be taken by small teams, while big inspections will be scaled down. Fewer inspectors, less paperwork and - for colleges that excel - an end to the four-yearly invasions. This has to be good news for students and employers seeking guarantees of quality, since snapshots aim to check weaknesses. Good news too for college staff and managers who should come to see inspectors as critical friends.

Lecturers complain that, under the current system, they hear much criticism but get little useful advice.

At present, once a college is identified as "failing", it is hamstrung by an out-of-date report no matter how rapidly it improves. Nothing can be done about it until the inspector calls. This does much damage to the reputation of colleges, since national newspapers regularly claim 40 colleges are failing. In fact, only four are failing.

However, the Ofsted reforms announced today should be seen as only a first step towards rationalising and cutting red tape. There are more than 20 external bodies auditing and inspecting FE, at a cost of pound;500 million a year. They distract staff and managers from essential tasks for up to 100 days a year in a large college. Many of these organisations, particularly the awarding bodies and finance auditing agencies, are more interested in the methodology and accuracy of inspection than in whether or not the college is successful. Reforms are still urgently needed to cut a swathe through this costly work.

Nor do the Ofsted reforms in themselves guarantee greater efficiency. That will depend on how rapidly college managers seek solutions to identified problems. It will also depend on how well the new Quality Improvement Agency works in supplying remedies for colleges in trouble.

But, whether or not the reforms bring about the lighter touch and reduced bureaucracy hoped for, the Association of Colleges is right to say that here is evidence of further education institutions at least being treated in a more grown-up fashion.

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