Bid to cut outside reviewers aims to raise standards, reports Andrew Mourant
Colleges are hoping to reduce the need for external reviews of their work with the launch next month of a new self-regulation scheme focusing on student achievement and retention.
Further education principals have long complained of being throttled by outside regulation and red tape which fforwm, the Welsh colleges'
representative body, says is "overly burdensome and out of all proportion to the amount of risk".
But fforwm chief executive Dr John Graystone said the main motive for the new scheme is improving standards.
Self-regulation will be based on colleges keeping each other up to the mark, sharing expertise and best practice. "We see it as colleges working with others to identify areas where their performance isn't good, and bringing in experts to improve standards," he said.
The pilot has been supported by all colleges chipping in pound;2,500 of funding from a pot of money set up by ELWa, the post-16 education funding agency, to support collaborative projects. fforwm will co-ordinate "health checks" and support visits for between three and six pilot colleges from across Wales.
Areas under review could include finance, curriculum or quality management.
Colleges might conduct their own self-assessment and tell the health-check team what they need. Reports would be made to fforwm's board on progress.
"Self-regulation needs to be hard-edged and rigorous and evidence-based," said Dr Graystone.
"Providing help and guidance to colleges is a two-way process. Those giving support also learn and benefit from the experience."
There would be a focus on retention and achievement of students, aimed at ensuring colleges are close to, or above, the national averages.
The proportion of students under 19 completing courses has remained almost constant for three years. Figures for 2003, the latest available, were 80 per cent. The proportion of under-19s successfully completing courses has risen from 37 per cent in 2001 to 44 per cent in 2003.
When it comes to the curriculum, Welsh colleges are getting more top grades in inspections than their peers in England. In 2003-4, the figures for grades 1 and 2 were 58 per cent in Wales, compared to 39.1 per cent across the border.
But Dr Graystone says there is a view in some quarters that FE's performance is patchy. "However unjustified it might be, quality may be seen as colleges' Achilles heel in respect of our relationship with ministers, civil servants and policy-makers," he added.
The colleges do not expect their self-regulation scheme to mean the end of Estyn inspections. But they are hoping it may lead to a reduction in the number of external audits, some of which are duplicated unnecessarily by ELWa, according to Brian Robinson, principal of Coleg Sir Gar, Llanelli, and fforwm senior vice-chairman responsible for quality.
This year Estyn introduces "light-touch" inspections for high-achieving colleges. "We'd like to reach the position where every college in Wales would have light touch," said Dr Graystone.