Light touch is delight touch

Two colleges today shake off the stigma of inadequacy in the first set of inspection reports published since a new light-touch regime was introduced.

Stroud college in Gloucestershire claims to be the fastest improving college in the sector by moving from a rating of inadequate to good in just two years.

Southgate college in north London is also celebrating after inspectors upgraded it from inadequate to satisfactory, which allows it the freedom to grow.

They are among reports on seven colleges inspected in October, the first since the Office for Standards in Education and the Adult Learning Inspectorate introduced a light-touch approach at the beginning of this academic year.

Under the new system, colleges are graded from one to four on overall "effectiveness of provision". Grades are also given on capacity to improve, achievement and standards, quality of provision, and leadership and management.

Stroud was awarded grade two in four areas and a grade three of satisfactory for its quality of provision. Diane Dale, Stroud's principal, said few other colleges have made such a substantial improvement in such a short space of time.

Appointed just before the 2003 inspection, she inherited a college described by Ofsted as suffering from "weak strategic decision- making, falling enrolments, unreliable management information, unsatisfactory curriculum management and low staff morale".

She said: "We have improved success rates by 15 per cent and there has been a 58 per cent growth in full-time students since the last inspection."

Michael Blagden, Southgate's principal since 1988, praised the new inspection regime for trusting colleges' judgements.

"The 2003 inspection was a real setback. It shocked us because in our two previous inspections we had been rated good or better.

"This was a very different experience altogether. The inspection team worked with us, asked what our strengths and weaknesses were and where they would find good teaching," he said. Inspectors awarded Southgate grade three in all five general areas. Of the curriculum areas, only health and social care now remains inadequate, while English for speakers of other languages was deemed good.

Inspectors now also rate West Cheshire college, in Chester, as good, awarding it grade two for effectiveness of provision and grade one for capacity to improve.

Sara Mogel, its principal, said she was disappointed at not being rated outstanding. "The inspectors use the word outstanding many times in the text of the report and also in their feedback to us," she said.

But she described the light- touch inspection as a "better experience" than previously. "We had just five inspectors in for five days, compared to nearly 40 days in 2001.

"People talk about trust in further education and this was somebody finally practising it. Anything that reduces bureaucracy has to be appreciated."

The principal of Cadbury sixth- form college in Birmingham was also disappointed by a rating of good rather than outstanding.

David Igoe said: "What they said they were doing this year was grading sixth-form colleges against similar colleges, so we are being measured against a very high standard. We would have expected a better grade under the old system."

Reports are also published today on two other sixth-form colleges, Prior Pulsgrove in Cleveland, rated good, and Christ the King in Lewisham, south-east London, rated outstanding. A specialist college, the Scope-run Beaumont in Lancaster, was rated satisfactory.

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