An elite of super colleges could emerge as further education joins schools in the forefront of the inspectorate's drive to push up standards in as public a way as possible.
In a move reminiscent of the previous government's pre-election announcement that it would award a quality mark to top-performing schools, an idea which shows no signs of being embraced by its successor, the FE report reveals that HMI intends reviving the proposal by publicly recognising high-quality colleges.
In his foreword to the 17-page report, Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, announced that he intended to change HMI approaches to FE inspections, based on colleges' experience of self-evaluation.
"Our new approaches will require colleges to produce action plans for quality improvement," Mr Osler states. "Advised and assisted by HMI, colleges will systematically address any weaknesses revealed by inspection. These approaches will lead eventually to the accreditation or recognition of colleges of high quality."
Mr Osler said the next Standards and Quality report in FE would be published in three years "by which time the self-evaluation and quality improvement process should be well advanced".
HMI visited all 45 FE colleges in Scotland during 1995 and 1996. Almost 1,300 teaching sessions were observed, of which 81 per cent were judged to be good or very good, 18 per cent fair and 1 per cent unsatisfactory.
The report analyses strengths and weaknesses in the seven main areas of college activity - programme design, student achievement, learning and teaching, support services, marketing, resources, management and quality assurance.
The inspectors found programmes were relevant and well-designed, with students able to take up courses on their own terms. But employers were not sufficiently involved, the report adds.
Student achievement in FE has been rising, but success rates need to be analysed more thoroughly and corrective action taken where necessary. National data on student performance has now been standardised and colleges will in future be able to compare their results.
Teaching was said to be suitably varied and assessment effective, although the quality of materials left a lot to be desired.
HMI also scrutinised student support, which, while continuously improving, was found wanting, particularly in pre-exit guidance, which was often "only fair", and in guidance to part-time students, which was limited.
The inspectors were critical of the state of college accommodation. Some of the poorest buildings were often old schools that colleges had inherited, there was cramped staff accommodation in most colleges, the standard of student amenities was simply "fair", and some specialist facilities did not conform to current employment practice.
The section on management and quality assurance presents a picture of general effectiveness. The colleges' refrain that they have delivered the Government's agenda by putting more bums on seats and reducing costs is given HMI endorsement. The report's message for FE is to keep on refining and developing existing management techniques.