Colleges fear more work if performance audit comes in on top of current inspection framework
JANE MACHELL had serious doubts about the Government's proposed yardstick for measuring the performance of further education colleges. But the Learning and Skills Council said its new Framework for Excellence will cut bureaucracy and give colleges and other providers greater control through self-regulation, while helping students and employers make more informed choices.
As principal of Alton College in Hampshire, Ms Machell has been a vocal critic of the proposed system since it was unveiled. Her sixth form college is one of half a dozen FE institutions to be declared outstanding in all inspection areas. But Ms Machell decided to give the framework the benefit of the doubt and put it to the test in her own college. Her verdict? "I think it's just ticking a box and going through the hoops."
She said most of the self-assessment involved was already covered by the common inspection framework (CIF). "It's duplication. We've already got audits and financial health categories, which give us evidence for the finance. I think it's unnecessary to have two (frameworks)," she said.
"Punters are more interested in what the inspectors have to say about the college, not what the LSC says."
While principals supported the notion of the framework, some feared the new system would do the opposite of what is intended, increasing rather than cutting assessment. They also criticised the star rating system, for measuring overall performance, as too simplistic to be of much use.
The proposed timescale was also an issue. The skills council first planned to implement the framework from August 2007, but deferred it to 2008 or 2009 after colleges said the timescale was unrealistic. A pilot scheme in 100 colleges and private providers will be introduced later this year instead.
The council met management from some colleges to reassure them that it will do all it can to avoid duplication by merging it with the inspection framework.
The proposed system is based on seven key performance indicators. These will define how a college responds to the needs of learners, employers and the community, how effective it is and how it manages its finances. A five-point scale to determine performance ratings is also proposed.
But responses showed a strong preference for the existing inspection framework. Many felt it should be adapted to become the sole measure when it is reviewed in 2009.
This view came not only from most providers, but also the inspectorate, unions and the Association of Colleges. All argued that the framework was the set of standards that all post-compulsory education and training was judged by and that it was well established.
However, the LSC's willingness to shift its position on the framework has placated some. While still wary, principals have accepted that it would happen and decided to make the best of it. "We have got to be pragmatic here," said Ms Machell. "They are going to bring it in even though we don't want it or need it."
But there were still two areas on which the council would not budge, despite an outcry. One was that while the framework would apply to general FE, sixth form colleges and private training providers, it did not apply to school sixth forms. This was seen as giving schools an unfair advantage and had implications for collaborative arrangements between schools and colleges developing the 14-19 diplomas.
Under pressure from ministers, the council was also sticking to its guns on the proposed star rating system. Critics rejected it as simplistic and pointed out that a similar system had failed in the NHS.
Maggie Scott, director of learning and quality with the AoC, said: "We cannot see that an aggregate of different aspects of provision, which is so different from college to college, can give you a like-for-like, single star rating."
Few private training providers responded to the consultation, but the Association of Learning Providers did. While agreeing the need for a clear and simple assessment framework, the ALP questioned the LSC's own performance, stating that before developing a framework for assessing providers, it should "put its own house in order".
Too often, providers were given too little information too late and ended up having to tender within unrealistic deadlines and were unable to start programmes on time because of delays caused by the LSC, said an ALP spokesman.
Roger Marriott, the LSC's director of quality and evaluation, said: "We want to work towards a single framework, which will meet the requirements for Ofsted in being a basis for inspection and also meet our and ministers'