Colleges stand accused of failing to face up to and remedy their own weaknesses in a top-level report leaked to The TES.
According to the second annual report by the chief inspector of further education, Terry Melia, some colleges are "viewing their own performance through rose-tinted spectacles" and allowing standards to slide.
The study, based on the 129 FE inspections carried out in 1994-5, warns colleges must be more self-critical if they are to win responsibility for their own quality assurance. While many are establishing quality control systems, "having these in place is not enough in itself".
Governors are attacked in the report for too often confining their role to overseeing finance and personnel policies when they should be setting targets for success in academic and vocational courses, The draft document, due to go before the Further Education Funding Council's quality assessment committee next month before publication in November, finds much room for improvement in colleges, despite judging the sector to be in "good health" overall at the end of two years of "frenetic activity".
The chief inspector takes a broadly upbeat view of colleges' efforts, praising their "vitality and momentum" in the quest for high standards, but his report reveals a tension between the pressure on the sector to expand and the need to maintain quality and work within funds available.
The document predicts colleges in areas where competition for 16 to 19-year-olds is intense will find the 5 per cent efficiency gains required of them through the funding formula difficult to achieve, and risk "being caught in a downward funding spiral". In such cases, the FEFC should consider the scope for more flexible funding arrangements, the chief inspector suggests.
A warning bell is also sounded over franchising - the system whereby colleges can fund other providers, such as community groups, training organisations or employers, to deliver courses on their behalf, helping them expand rolls and attract greater funding.
The report highlights the potential for "ill-thought-out and badly managed schemes" quickly to damage the sector's reputation, and cites instances of colleges funding courses delivered in private houses or "sub-standard" accommodation up to 100 miles from the campus.
Questions are also raised over the benefit of using public money to provide franchised on-the-job training previously funded by employers - an issue known to be concerning training and enterprise councils. The practice is judged "a matter for the FEFC and government to consider".
Standards of accommodation, staffing and equipment had changed little last year compared with 1993-4.
The report notes that part-time teachers often get a raw deal compared with their full-time colleagues, missing out on induction, support and staff development opportunities.
Accommodation strategies are proving beneficial in many colleges but many buildings still urgently need upgrading or replacement, the chief inspector says.
Communal and library provision is inadequate, and problems with engineering and science equipment have not been dealt with.
Though the study makes much of the greatly increased take-up of the general national vocational qualification courses it reveals tutors are still facing a time-consuming struggle explaining documentation to students.
The findings of an as yet unpublished survey by the inspectorate on GNVQs in 1994-5, quoted in the report, reveal 10 per cent of the 2,900 teaching sessions visited had more weaknesses than strengths.
This figure represents an improvement of only 1 per cent over the previous year. External tests in maths, part of the pilot GNVQ in engineering, had "deficiencies" needing addressing.
Many colleges are still failing to keep a proper track of students' destinations, making it far harder to assess the success of recent GNVQ reforms or the impact of changes in participation rates.
Colleges are presented with a further shopping list of developments needed if they are to cater for new markets.
To adapt, they will have to improve guidance and support, develop more flexible curricula and credit accumulation arrangements, integrate workplace experience with college programmes and deliver more workplace courses and improve provision for adults with low or no qualifications.
What the report says
Although both senior college managers and staff have been apprehensive about the possible effects of the new funding arrangements, the overall impact has been beneficial. The sector is estimated to have grown by 5 per cent in 1994-95 and achieved an efficiency gain of more than 6 per cent.There have of course been some difficulties.
Colleges in areas in which participation levels of 16 to 19-year-olds are already high, and where there is intense competition with other institutions for this cohort of students, will find 5 per cent efficiency gains difficult to achieve.
Such colleges face the danger of being caught in a downward funding spiral which will require imaginative management if it is not to be damaging. downward funding spiral.
The sector is paying increased attention to the quality of its provision, but colleges need to ensure that their developing quality assurance arrangements are extended and applied to improve the quality of students' learning experience, to raise standards and to enhance the examination achievements of students.
Although colleges are putting a great deal of effort into the establishment of quality assurance and control systems, having these in place is not enough in itself. The systems need to be fully developed and effectively used to identify weaknesses as well as strengths and to ensure that the weaknesses are addressed.
The evidence from the 129 self-assessment reports prepared by colleges during the 1994-5 college inspection round is that some colleges view their own performance through rose-tinted spectacles. Assessment by colleges of their own performance is on average one grade better than assessment during college inspections.
Colleges ought now to pay more attention to objective self-assessment if they are to be recognised as self-critical communities sufficiently mature to be give responsibility for their own quality assurance.
Most of these arrangements widen access and help students progress. A number of sector colleges have used franchising to achieve rapid growth: one sector college during 1994-5 claimed a growth in student enrolments of 79 per cent, while others achieved growth of over 30 per cent. In such dashes for growth a number of colleges have overstretched themselves. In particular, there were colleges acting as franchisers for provision that was delivered in private houses or in sub-standard accommodation often at some distance from the college, in one case over 100 miles away. Few colleges have either the resources or the experience to deliver high-quality franchised education programmes at long distances from their home base and should be cautious in their approach to such developments.
The prolonged national dispute over staff contracts is having an adverse effect on teachers' morale and four of the 129 college inspections were affected by teacher action related to this dispute. Notwithstanding their disagreement on contractual matters, most teachers continue to do a good job.
Across the further education sector as a whole, the quality of teaching is satisfactory. In 62 per cent of the 22,000 lessons observed by inspectors the strengths were judged to outweigh the weaknesses. In 8 per cent the reverse was true. On average, the teaching on GCE A level and access courses was slightly better than on GCSE and vocational courses. On vocational courses, teachers were more successful in developing students' practical skills than they were in developing their understanding of underlying theory.
The National Council for Vocational Qualifications' straightforward core skills document has been welcomed by both colleges and students, and the guidance received from the vocational awarding bodies is improving.
However, teachers still spend a great deal of time explaining complex documentation to students and the late arrival of revised specifications continues to hinder planning.
College record keeping has improved since last year and core skills are more closely integrated with other aspect of work. However, the assessment of core skills still poses problems. Teachers need guidance on ways of ensuring that core skills are developed and assessed to the same extent and consistency of standards across the whole of a GNVQ programme. External tests, although now causing teachers less concern, still have deficiencies, particularly in the mathematics tests associated with the pilot GNVQ in engineering.
Some aspects of college charters need to be improved. Some are insufficiently clear on student entitlements, particularly for students with learning difficulties and or disabilities.
There is also a need across the sector to improve the arrangements for monitoring progress on handling complaints.
During college inspections, a number of issues emerged. They include the need to replace outdated equipment in both science and engineering, the impact of the continuing recession on student recruitment to construction and engineering, which is threatening the survival of smaller departments, poor attendance and low retention rates across programme areas, the weakness of assessment and the recording of students' achievements in basic education programmes and poor exam results in A-level and GCSE courses in some general further education colleges."