An over-reliance on part-time teachers is threatening standards in colleges, warns Terry Melia, chief inspector for the Further Education Funding Council, in his annual report. His call for a reappraisal of staffing needs strikes at the heart of management policies in many colleges where up to 50 per cent of teaching is on a part-time basis.
"Although part-time staff often bring to the classroom up-to-date knowledge of industrial and commercial practices, only rarely do they engage in curriculum development, student support and guidance activities, extra-curricular provision, formal staff appraisal and in-service training," he said.
Dr Melia's valedictory report (he retires at Christmas) shows that colleges have made "remarkable achievements" since incorporation. There have been steady improvements in student attendance and standards, despite Government pressures for growth and 20 per cent efficiency savings in three years.
But a persistent 8 per cent of lessons in further education and sixth-form colleges have remained unsatisfactory, often for reasons of poor management rather than lack of cash, he said. Too little time was spent on teaching students because classes had been kept unrealistically small. The average class size last year was 11.
Fear of redundancy continues to sap enthusiasm as colleges strive to meet efficiency targets and cope with an ever-wider student ability range. The widening range has taken its toll on success rates as more lower-ability students strive for higher targets.
Areas of the curriculum showing an apparent decline in quality include agriculture, art and design and basic education, where the percentage of work attracting the top two inspection grades dropped from 68 to 58 last year.
Dr Melia cautioned against viewing this too negatively. "The numbers of successful students have risen in these subjects. But with such a rapid expansion of student numbers, there are inevitably more who will be struggling to make the grade," he told The TES.
The answer is to rethink teaching and learning styles and pay closer attention to individual student needs, "an area too many colleges still fall down on", he added.
Principals and senior staff recruited as educators have had to learn the skills and language of accountants. "Some have found the pace of change too great and those still in post are having to work hard to achieve a proper balance between educational and entrepreneurial elements of their role, " he said.
Therefore, to cut costs, colleges increasingly relied on part-time staff with significantly lower overheads than full-time staff. And the changing job patterns created redundancy fears.
Dr Melia issued a stern warning to colleges choosing the part-time route: "Such changes in college employment patterns may undermine standards and the inspectorate will continue to monitor their impact on the levels of students' achievements".
He stressed, however, that colleges had much to congratulate themselves for. His report, Quality and Standards in Further Education in England, is the third annual assessment of colleges. It found that 95 per cent of work done by colleges was satisfactory or better.
Inspectors reporting on visits to 121 colleges were worried that insufficient attention was paid to the teaching of key skills. Standards in vocational education were generally high, but those of GCSE andA-level "gave cause for concern".
Colleges are still hampered by inadequate investment in buildings, and specialist equipment was often lacking or outdated. There was no correlation between college funding levels and the quality of courses. But there was a strong link between standards, good governance and effective quality assurance arrangements, Dr Melia said.