Pressure from successful colleges has forced a rethink over the speed of transition to a lighter-touch further education inspection system.
A consultation on a revised framework for the next four-year round of inspections revealed that one in five colleges responding wanted a more rapid move to a system of accreditation for high-quality institutions than was proposed.
Many colleges had hoped a review of the inspection framework carried out earlier this year would allow them to start monitoring themselves and applying for full accredited status immediately.
But a hard-hitting report from an inspection working group led by college chief inspector Dr Terry Melia concluded colleges were far from ready for self-assessment and recommended they should not have a free hand until the millennium.
Now, however, the working group, set up by the Further Education Funding Council has heeded demand and proposed a mechanism allowing speedier accreditation. In the next inspection round, colleges will be asked to produce a self-assessment report to be validated by inspectors through some form of sampling. If it proved accurate and the college did well, inspectors could award accredited status.
The proposal is expected to cut by at least 18 months the four years anticipated for the first accreditations in the original draft inspection framework. However, the working group rejected as complex and unworkable Dr Melia's proposals for a phased accreditations system in which colleges could win the right to assess individual programme areas, before eventually acquiring full-institution accreditation. He had suggested such a scheme could start from the beginning of the next inspection cycle next September.
The cost and timing of training inspectors was a key objection to the move. High-flying colleges that achieved top inspection reports in the first cycle have pressed for swift accreditation. However, the working group felt no institution should gain the status on the basis of the first inspection round in order to avoid giving any college an unfair advantage.
Group member, Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College, praised the move. "We should be able to get at least nine out of 10 colleges accredited by the year 2000."
The revised proposals on accreditation will be considered by the Further Education Funding Council's quality assessment committee. The inspection working group has asked the committee to set up a special committee to examine how accreditation can be brought forward. Accredited status would be reviewed every four years, and could be withdrawn if identified weaknesses were not addressed by the colleges.
Dr Melia has made concessions to a vocal minority of successful colleges who want fast-track self-monitoring, but is sceptical about the self-assessment abilities of most institutions. "A lot have reasonably good-quality assurance systems, but their self-assessment reports were too glowing," he said. "They were more like prospectuses."
Almost all 251 colleges responding to the consultation on the new framework welcomed the general thrust of the changes, but many called for further guidance on self-assessment.
The inspection working group has recommended colleges use a tabular format, linking objectives to targets and evaluating strengths and weaknesses of provision. This would form the basis of discussion between college and inspectorate over action to remedy problems.
Other modifications to the draft guidelines in the wake of the consultation include references to inclusive learning - the principle at the heart of the Tomlinson Committee's report on provision for students with special needs or disabilities - and to equal opportunities.