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Star gradings upset leaders

A proposed new star rating for colleges has been attacked by principals who fear it will add to their assessment burden.

Their concerns come despite the Government's stated commitment to reducing bureaucracy.

Details of the Learning and Skills Council's new Framework for Excellence, due to be published this week, were revealed at a conference for FE and sixth-form colleges in Cambridge last week.

The framework is one of the reforms in the further education white paper, which promised to introduce clearer performance information, reduce bureaucracy and ease levels of intervention for better-performing colleges.

It proposes a new set of indicators to measure performance across three areas - colleges' responsiveness, including learner and employer satisfaction, quality, including learner success rates, and financial health and control. This will be aggregated into a single overall performance rating for each college or work-based learning provider.

The LSC proposes a five-point scale for overall performance, including a new category of "underperforming" between "satisfactory" and "poor".

The Department for Education and Skills is understood to want a star rating system to show colleges' performance, using a similar method to the assessment of local authorities. It is proposed that the new gradings would be used by employers and students to inform their choices, by colleges'

potential partners, and by sector skills councils as well as for external accountability.

Framework for Excellence will go out for consultation and is to be put to the test by up to 40 colleges from September. It will be extended to other providers in 2008.

But principals responded angrily to the proposals at the Association of Colleges and Sixth-Form Colleges' Forum 16-19 summer conference, accusing the LSC of reinventing the wheel.

Jane Machell, principal of Alton College, which received five grade ones at inspection, said colleges already faced a barrage of assessments, interventions and audits.

She said: "There's a whole list of them, which totally and utterly contradict a reduction of intervention for good colleges, a reduction in bureaucracy and a commitment to simplify the way colleges are judged.

"There's no other sector of education that is subject to this. It clearly indicates to us that there's a lack of trust," said Ms Machell.

There was also dismay that the new system will not apply to school sixth forms. The Government wants more collaboration between schools and colleges to deliver new specialised diplomas from 2008, but principals said the framework puts colleges at an even greater disadvantage.

Maggie Scott, director of learning and quality with the AoC said: "We await the publication of the document, and particularly (to see) how much of what colleges already collect will be taken forward into the new framework.

"We welcome a holistic approach, because the methods by which colleges are judged at the moment are relatively crude. And we think that this will more accurately reflect the entirety of what colleges do. But with that level of detail will come a complexity which inevitably will lead to a greater short-term burden on colleges."

Ms Scott said the association has questioned how the wealth of information colleges produce can be distilled into such a simplified system.

The Learning and Skills Council said it would not comment on the new framework until the consultation document is published.

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