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'It's more of a shared approach';FE Focus

SOUTHGATE College received six months' notice that it was to be inspected by the Further Education Funding Council.

Between March and October last year, it produced a self-assessment report and set up a "shadow" inspection team to prepare teachers and other staff for the arrival of the FEFC.

Southgate College, in Barnet, north London, based the self-assessment report on its own rolling programme for reviewing the quality of courses and other facilities. As well as annual reviews, which all curriculum and cross-college teams are expected to carry out, each area of the college is reviewed every four years. This includes seeking views of staff, students, governors and employers.

Before its October FEFC inspection, the college did not arrange any extra observation of lessons beyond what takes place for regular staff appraisal and other purposes. Students' views were sought by questionnaires and through annual faculty meetings with their representatives.

Anne Castling, Southgate's quality assurance manager, believes the FEFC does not want colleges to organise extra assessment before inspections and was taken aback by a comment in the FEFC inspectors' report that the college had limited evidence from lesson observation to assess the quality of teaching and learning.

Overall Southgate came out well and inspectors praised its quality assurance procedures for helping to raise students' achievements and commitment. Inspectors agreed with most of the strengths and weaknesses identified by the college but said some weaknesses, for example in engineering and art lessons, were not emphasised enough.

Ms Castling strongly supports the new inspection system. "It's much more consultative," she says. "The FEFC is treating us as professionals who understand our business. It's more of a shared approach."

It took the college three months to prepare a self-assessment report and three more for the findings to be checked by a team of 10 auditors, or verifiers, who also carried out a "shadow" inspection before the FEFC's visit.

The shadow inspection team consisted of staff from Southgate and nearby Hendon College, as well as outside consultants chosen by Southgate.

Principal Michael Blagden says the shadow inspection "raised the impetus" among his staff and made them realise that the real inspectors were coming.

Self-assessment made inspection by the FEFC far less of a burden. Inspectors spent less than a week at Southgate last October. In 1994, it took up to nine months.

"I'm not convinced that every inspector had read our report in detail," adds Mr Blagden. "They still observed teaching and learning in the same way as before but spent less time gathering evidence. They just checked things to see if it supported our grades."

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