The standards debate in colleges

Standards and quality have reached further education colleges. That is, the series of HMI Standards and Quality reports, previously confined to primary and secondary schools, has examined performance in the 43 colleges. The verdict is "encouraging" according to Douglas Osler, the head of the Inspectorate. That will bring pleasure and relief to college managers. It may raise a few eyebrows among some staff and students.

There is hardly a sign of the anecdotal shortcomings of some courses and their assessment. True, 1 per cent of teaching sessions were unsatisfactory, and that would mean 13 out of 1,300 observed. Some colleges had student completion rates of less than 70 per cent, and colleges did not always pursue the reason. Staff appraisal had made little progress in a few colleges.

It is clear from the thrust of the report and Mr Osler's gloss, where he could have afforded to be more "political", that inadequate performance is much the exception. FE colleges do not get the kind of admonition handed out by inspectors to teachers of S1 and S2 pupils. Things are on the right lines although there are gaps to be filled in.

Staff may be inclined to say that the Government, this one as much as the last, has a vested interest in approving the record of FE since incorporation. It would identify serious shortcomings at its peril since college staff would immediately point to a lack of resources. They would be supported by their managers who repeatedly tell the Scottish Office that they are expected to make bricks without straw while the recipe for the other constituents of the bricks changes every year.

HMIs are not, however, in the business of making life easy for their colleagues who divvy up the budgets. Their job is to observe and seek opinions. They would no doubt point to the statistic that four out of five students are satisfied or very satisfied with the courses and teaching. So what is the source of the rumbling discontents which come out in stories of students being inappropriately challenged or allowed to get their modules in the interest of their department's SARU, that is, the student achievement ratio by unit of learning? Such discontents have also resulted in industrial troubles in several colleges.

The global statistics may cover instances of poor performance. In other cases fact does not support rumour. But perhaps at root there is still a mismatch between college life a few years ago and the demands of a more rigorous regime which does not have spare cash to address problems at lecturer or departmental level. HMI scrutiny can pinpoint such difficulties and seek action even if they are not reflected in the national picture.

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