MIDDLE-RANKING colleges which fail to improve their inspection grades are "coasting" and should set themselves tougher targets, lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks said this week.
Speaking at the launch of the annual report of the Further Education Funding Council's quality assessment committee, Mr Wicks said: "We still need to see a rise in achievement rates. Almost certainly there are too many coasting colleges and some complacency. That is now in the key challenge."
"Perhaps in the past we have focussed attention on the stars and the strugglers and not enough on the middle reaches."
Mr Wicks said that while there had been a "much-needed im-provement" among the worst colleges with a 9 per cent increase in achievement and retention in the last year, mid-ranking colleges had improved by just 5 per cent.
Ministers have "named and shamed" schools seen to be coasting, but although the FEFC is carrying out research to identify underachieving colleges it has no plans to publish the results.
Jim Donaldson, the council's chief inspector, said: "It worries me when colleges which were subject to inspection four years ago have not improved their grade profile. That's a source of concern."
Among colleges "above the threshold" - those which get good or satisfactory grades at inspection - there was "considerable scope" for improvement, he said.
"Too many colleges consider themselves to be excellen when the academic performance of the college is at best mediocre."
The quality assessment committee's report says that of the 134 FE institutions inspected in 1998-9 there were 43 appeals against grades. Only one was upheld.
An FEFC report into self-assessment last year showed that 30 per cent of the grades colleges gave themselves exceeded those awarded by inspectors, while colleges underestimate strengths in only 7 per cent of cases.
But the committee's report also notes that more than 50 colleges were awarded at least one grade 1 for outstanding service.
It says that while most colleges are "well-managed, responsive and effective institutions", about 10 per cent were not managed satisfactorily, "which should be of concern to all those working in and with the sector."
The best teaching was on A and AS-level courses while that on GNVQ programmes showed the most improvement. But the proportion of good and outstanding GCSE lessons fell - only 37 per cent of GCSE maths classes fell into these categories.
Sir Bob Reid, chairman of the quality assessment committee said: "The vast majority of colleges are staffed and governed by people with a strong vocational drive who want the best for students.
"The past six years have seen FE move from the wings to centre stage. The committee is convinced that the commitment to quality is now firmly embedded and that - given the right level of support - colleges can deliver the higher standards to which we all aspire."