Beyond repair? The failing few
The long history of ministers making demands of the FE system, one target has been overlooked: the elimination of failing colleges.
The then education secretary, Alan Johnson, told colleges in November 2006 that inadequate FE institutions must become a thing of the past.
"We will do all we can to help poor performers to improve, and the improvement notices will help," he said, "but where continuous efforts fail, firm action must be taken.
"We must push for greater improvements among under-performers and we must eliminate complete failure by 2008 at the latest. The responsibility for improvement must rest primarily with FE institutions themselves."
That deadline came and went without being met. As is often the way, a missed aspiration was confined to the memory hole.
But with the latest Ofsted annual report out next month, on the first anniversary of that failed aspiration, how close did colleges come, and can the goal of zero failure be achieved?
The last inspection cycle covering just more than 100 institutions saw seven colleges rated inadequate. Ofsted also noted colleges tended to move in and out of the failing grade: six former failing institutions have improved while four declined. Only one remained inadequate over two inspections.
It is a higher failure rate than in 2006, when Mr Johnson made his demand. But numbers are small enough to be prone to fluctuations.
Some argue that a small percentage of failure is as close to zero as possible, and that while institutions rapidly recover, and the numbers rated inadequate are small, there is little cause for concern.
David Sherlock, former chief executive of the Adult Learning Inspectorate and now director of the consultancy Beyond Standards, says: "The idea that there will be zero failure is excessively optimistic. When you look back at the records since 1993, you see a revolving door - there was always some churn between all the grades.
"If it's much below 10 per cent, we should be throwing our hats in the air."
At City College Birmingham - judged inadequate in the year Mr Johnson hoped such a rating would become extinct - the leadership hope they have turned the corner, though they are awaiting a new inspection to confirm it.
The college's new principal, Stuart Cutforth, and David Gibson, the interim principal during the turnaround, have experience of improving about half a dozen failing colleges between them.
Mr Cutforth says the expectations on how quickly colleges can bounce back may now be too high and is keeping colleges in a failing grade for an extra inspection cycle.
"It used to be a two-year period, then 12 or 15 months," he says. "That's why more colleges tend to need two attempts at it."
The diagnosis of the team brought in to improve the college was that it had been left behind by a sweeping change in FE. Having relied for many years on a large number of adults on short courses, it failed to adapt when the Government withdrew funding.
"They're coasting along, doing what they're doing; meanwhile, the world changes," Mr Cutforth says. "This was a good college, then the funding shifted."
It raises the question of whether failure can be eliminated while FE is in constant flux, with such major changes as the elimination of 1.5 million adult education places for managers to react to.
But as Mr Sherlock observes, a part of education as closely tied to economic concerns as FE is never likely to be stable.
The response at City College was to focus on "the right student, on the right course, at the right level", maximising each student's chance of success - and the college's rating for achievement.
Poorly rated provision was ditched to focus on strengths, and the result was a rapid increase in student numbers.
Mr Gibson says that college failure is about a failure of senior managers, not teachers.
"Almost always there has been a failure by senior management to concentrate on student achievement," he says. "They tend to have too many staff and have financial problems."
It is not clear that all colleges will bounce back from failure rapidly. Doncaster College is trying.
First judged to be failing in 2007, it has made reasonable progress according to Ofsted, but the depth of its financial crisis meant the principal brought in to turn it around, Rowland Foote, ended up losing his job.
David Collins, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), insists the aim of eliminating failure totally is still possible by improving the quality of management.
As well as trying to offer failing colleges links with expert practitioners of their choice from within other FE institutions, LSIS is planning to offer visits to colleges to try to identify potential problems early, in a benign, inconspicuous version of the Ofsted process.
But Mr Collins says the key to preventing failure is ensuring that managers in each college are equipped to identify problems early and solve them, meaning management courses developed by LSIS playing a major part.
"I don't think any institution needs to fail." he says. "There has to be more effort in some areas. It doesn't need much oversight and monitoring. It's about making sure that staff who are in key positions in our colleges have the skills to be depended on."
For a system dedicated to improving the skills of every other industry, FE's internal training system is in its infancy. But will this be the final nail in the coffin of the failing college?