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Lighter touch finds favour

Self-assessment has been hailed a success. Ngaio Crequer reports.

The first colleges to undergo self-assessment gave the thumbs-up this week to the new process of inspection introduced by the Further Education Funding Council.

The inspectors published reports on Alton College and Worthing Sixth Form College. Both had carried out their own self-assessment and had then been inspected by the council, using its new "lighter touch" approach.

The inspectors described Worthing's self-assessment report as "rigorous and accurate although the evidence supporting judgments about teaching and learning is limited". The college was judged outstanding in social sciences and its management.

Worthing principal John Robinson said he welcomed self-assessment and the new form of inspection. "It is a very big step forward. The timetable for self-assessment was very short, we only had a couple of months to get it together. But we had developed our quality assurance systems with that in mind. It was challenging but we were not starting from scratch.

"We had three meetings fixed with the inspectors to negotiate an agenda but in the end we only needed one, and we agreed the areas to be inspected very easily."

The work put into the self-assessment made it much easier to cope with the inspection, he added. "We felt it was a far more rigorous inspection process than the previous one. Although it was only a sample, it was more hard-hitting. They were testing evidence rather than creating evidence from scratch. We felt far more put through it than the last time around. You have all that quantity of evidence from which you can build, rather than starting with a blank piece of paper."

The inspectors validated all the grades proposed by the college, except one - mathematics which the college had assessed as one grade too high. "I think we got that one wrong," said Mr Robinson. "Four years ago we got a grade 4 (the second lowest on the five-point scale) for quality assurance and now we have got a 2, nearly a 1. That shows what you can do.

"The self-assessment process is excellent. We are now forging ahead to achieve self-accredited status whenever they decide what that means. Getting good grades is much more difficult under this scheme. I think they really put the screws on, which is great. It is important that the standard is maintained. "

Alton College also welcomed the new process. The inspectors found that "most of the grades awarded as a result of the college's self-assessment are well-founded, though the college overestimates some strengths, particularly the quality of teaching and learning." It was outstanding in English and communications.

Principal Michael Gray said: "We very much like self-assessment and validation by the inspectors. They were working under very great pressure. They had an appalling timetable so sometimes we found there was not always time to address issues, so we were slightly nostalgic."

Inspectors largely validated the college's own views but they did feel that the college's assessment of governance was over-stated. "The inspectors made their views clear and they have enormous experience so yes, we do accept that."

His one concern was that because only 50 per cent of the college's work was sampled, the inspection gives an incomplete picture. Mathematics and science had previously been judged outstanding, but this time they were not inspected. Overall, the inspection had produced "a useful and valuable report".

More than 100 colleges will be inspected this year and the FEFC is about one-third of the way through the programme.

Jim Donaldson, chief inspector of colleges, said: "We think the first time round has been good and they will get better with the passage of time. Management and governance are the areas where the colleges' opinion tends to be more favourable than ours."

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