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Rough justice?

There are remarkable similarities between the ranking of colleges in the Government's academic performance league-tables and in one drawn-up using data from the Further Education Funding Council's annual report on inspections.

It was never the chief inspector Terry Melia's intention to enter the league-table game when he drew up performance ratings from one to five for 18 different aspects of every college's work. But, as many principals of colleges inspected so far have found, the temptation to aggregate the scores and compare them with those of neighbours is just too strong to resist.

This begs some very pressing questions. Shouldn't the legions of performance-indicator pundits, the l,000 inspectors and droves of quality assessors pack-up and go home? After all, a centralised bank of raw exam data tells us all we need, doesn't it? Is it right to ring-fence millions from the Pounds 3 billion global budget for such exercises? Or would it be better spent improving performance?

Such conclusions should be resisted. Leaving aside college concerns over the inadequacies of vocational exam data, even if the two tables were a perfect match, the big shortcoming of the Government's exercise is that it fails to answer the question: why? And such failures only serve to invite conclusions based on prejudice. That is why so many managers have argued that league tables would be better based on inspection data. The search for the "value-added" formula is not to find excuses for failure but to seek solutions.

This Further Education Update explores four issues central to the value colleges add to students' lives: performance indicators, inspections, special needs and the demands for a better accord with Training and Enterprise Councils.

It is evident that colleges can grasp the nettle, as they have with inspections where more control will be handed to colleges (page 7). Inspections have already been well-received, with colleges viewing them as up to Pounds 40,000 in "free consultancy" (page 6), although Dr Melia's report shows much improvement is needed (page 5).

Performance indicators are giving information on value-added factors and individual colleges are doing path-finding work (pages 3-5), to ensure parity of esteem with academic studies.

For students with special needs, there is much good practice but, as senior inspector Merillie Vaughan Huxley says, one barrier to high-quality teaching is the lack of trained specialists (page ll).

Colleges are groaning under the weight of so much scrutiny and evaluation. And it is likely to get worse before it gets better. All the issues above will be very much to the fore in college life in the coming year. No single body exists to make strategic sense of all six. Will the Further Education Development Agency fill the gap?

Until then, those colleges which meet the challenges of self-improvement will gain powerful evidence to press for more support from the Treasury, FEFC, TECs and others. Those which fail will have the league tables but little or no evidence to say why.

Ian Nash Editor, Further Education Update

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