Nobody likes to be inspected, but at Arnold and Carlton College in Nottingham the experience turned out to be invigorating. "It added up to about Pounds 40,000 of free consultancy," said Ronnie Ogier, the principal.
What was most valuable was the self-assessment the college had to make as part of the four-year inspections by the Further Education Funding Council.
The college, in Mapperley, Nottingham, is one of five FE colleges, a tertiary college and two sixth-form colleges in the area. It has more than 5,000 students and last year it experienced a 24 per cent growth in enrolments as a result of good marketing and new courses.
The staff were already being inspected in June when they received a call saying that they would have to provide a self-assessment in time for the week-long team visit in October.
The principal and Chris Garnett, the director of curriculum and the college nominee for the inspection, put their heads together. "We decided that it should first address the cross-college areas the inspectors would look at, and second, it should reflect our strategic plan," said Mrs Ogier. "We did not want to be judged against anything other than targets we set ourselves."
Under the seven headings laid down in Assessing Achievement the report sets out the college's targets, examines the progress that has been made, and then points to further action that needs to be taken.
They took it to a governors meeting and this too was helpful. "They said it allowed them to see where the college was going, how it was doing and how we were going to progress," said Mrs Ogier. Chris Garnett said: "It has become a management tool in its own right, a benchmark by which to judge future development."
But how did the inspectors see it? Was it useful during the inspection? Mrs Ogier explains: "They made a very positive statement about senior management. They said we were committed, hard-working and spoke with one voice. But we forget to tell people out in the college what we were saying. We had a lot of ideas, a lot of change was taking place, but we had no policies. In retrospect, I was aware this was the case but someone had to come and tell us."
Or as Chris Garnett puts it: " We were aware that something was not quite gelling, but as we were too close to it, we could not put our finger on what it was. That is what the inspectors were telling us."
The staff were often referred back to the self-assessment report and asked to explain or account for statements they had made. It began a constructive dialogue, one they did not want to lose.
"What I fear is the loss of a good framework in the future," said Mr Garnett. "There is over the horizon the prospect of a much more detached process of inspection whereby the college does its own internal quality assessment, a much more hands-off approach. We got a lot out of contact with the inspection team. It would be a pity to lose it."
The only criticism of the process was that it was a very stressful period, although the inspectors were mindful of this, and responsive on a personal level. They were after all in the business of making judgments. But the team at Arnold and Carlton could see no solution to this problem.
Barton Peveril college, in Hampshire, was also one of the first colleges to carry out a self-assessment. "It was an interesting idea because it could help us to set the agenda," said Peter Harris, the principal. "But it was a difficult process. We needed to get the balance between being honest about our weaknesses as we perceive them and being clear about our strengths."
All the heads of department were involved and the FEFC seven headings were used as a checklist. "It was a good process to undergo. It gets you ready for any questions that may be asked during the inspection. In an inspection you don't want any surprises."
"There were also things we hadn't done, which we should have, and this reminded us. I know they used it because they referred to it during the inspection. Some of the issues we identified came back as issues in the commentary on the inspection.
"Things have been hectic in the sector since incorporation. I think we have got more in the habit of doing self reviews in the last couple of years, And data such as exam results is already assimilated.
"We found it a profitable experience for the college. I am sure it will benefit us in both the short and long-term," he said.
So is there any advice for other colleges? Do not underestimate the scale of upheaval and the demands of staff, said Chris Garnett of Arnold and Carlton. Do not hold back information. If the inspectors want to find something they will, they are trained observers.
"Be professional about it. Be prepared to meet them more than half-way. Look at it straight in the eye for better or for worse, and see it as a learning process. Even if you want to, you cannot pull the wool over their eyes. "
The college felt it benefited so much from the self-assessment that it is going to do it every year, for its governors, and for internal use.