Further education colleges in Scotland have largely passed the quality test of HM inspectorate.
An analysis of inspection reports on 43 of the 46 colleges, carried out by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, noted that few aspects were rated unsatisfactory, although a handful were judged merely fair.
Those aspects graded unsatisfactory were in particular subjects.
College-wide reviews, which include management and general issues in the running of colleges, turned up just one unsatisfactory - at Coatbridge, which led to the resignation of the principal.
The subjects rated unsatisfactory - one in Ayr, three in Coatbridge, two in Kilmarnock, one in North Glasgow, one in Shetland, three in Stevenson and one in Stow - have now been tackled to the satisfaction of the funding council, it states in its annual report for 2003-04, issued last week.
The council insists that an unsatisfactory grade from HMI requires the college to submit a speedy action plan to sort out the problems. It comments: "There are no outstanding issues relating to unsatisfactory grades. There are also arrangements in place to review the actions taken in respect of other HMI recommendations arising from a quality review."
At the other end of the spectrum, Falkirk College is unique in achieving very goods for all college-wide activities. Twenty-three other colleges were rated very good or good on a college basis.
That covers educational leadership and direction, access and inclusion, guidance, resources, staffing, quality assurance, quality improvement and arrangements for disabled students. The subject reviews cover at least 60 per cent of the range of subjects offered by each college.
The three colleges whose reports were not available in time for the funding council's analysis were Aberdeen, Clydebank and Dumfries and Galloway.
These have now been published and, with the exception of the amount of resources for the curriculum and quality improvement procedures at Clydebank, all aspects of the running of the colleges were rated very good or good. That now completes the first cycle of college inspections. The next round will take a form similar to that for schools, involving "lighter touch" inspections where the reviews of subjects and leadership in a college have been rated very good or good.
The new system will start in January, following a detailed consultation which found general agreement that there was "confidence in the increasing maturity of the sector".
Confidence has been expressed, too, in the financial health of the colleges which are expected to be financially secure by July 2006.
Funding council figures for 2002-03 show the underlying "surplusdeficit" for colleges was zero. This is defined as the financial position after adjustments have been made to exclude significant one-off items such as restructuring costs and pension provisions.
"The underlying operating position is considered to be a fair assessment of colleges' underlying financial health and a measure of its ability to maintain and develop productive capacity into the longer term," the council reports.
The position, which covers 2002-03, ranges from a surplus of 7 per cent by John Wheatley College in Glasgow to a 16 per cent deficit at West Lothian College, which has been wrestling with the financial costs of funding its new building with an early version of the then private finance initiative (PFI).
Overall, 20 colleges were in surplus that year, 12 ran deficits and the remaining were at zero. The report describes these results as "modest," but funding chiefs confidently expect the position to improve as their campaign builds up to make all colleges financially secure by July 2006.
As they put it, there is now "a stable platform for sustainable financial improvement".
WHERE THE WINDFALL WILL GO
The FE funding council has now allocated to individual colleges the pound;10 million made available in July by the Scottish Executive as part of its "end of year" savings. Priority is to be given to urgent capital works necessary for health and safety reasons, improved physical access for students and updated estates strategies.
The distribution is based on a fixed pound;25,000 for each college and a formula amount driven by the college's student activity. The largest sum of pound;650,000 therefore goes to James Watt College, with Orkney and Shetland colleges receiving pound;45,000 each.