Beacon awards were introduced in March 2002 to recognise high-performing learning providers. Since then, ministers have expanded them across the full range of providers, and made them part of their strategy to reform FE and training.
In its first year, beacon status was given to a limited mix of organisations that had to conform to strict criteria. The first 25 winners were one general FE college, three tertiary colleges, nine sixth form colleges, and 12 work-based learning providers.
Then in October last year new criteria and selection arrangements were announced. Beacon status is now granted if an institution gains grade 1 or 2 at inspection for leadership and management, at least two-thirds of learners in curriculum areas graded 1 or 2, and no grades 4 or 5.
Providers that satisfy the inspection element have their suitability assessed by the Learning and Skills Council. The assessment includes their capacity to disseminate good practice and to influence others. Providers complete a proposal form with support from their local learning and skills council, and a national advisory panel considers it. The Department for Education and Skills then makes a recommendation to ministers.
An organisation retains its beacon status for three years. During that time it is expected to disseminate its good practice. LSC funding, negotiated individually, is available to do this. The next round of awards is planned for the end of February, creating around 20 new beacons. It is expected that further awards will be made this year.
The DfES says there are definite benefits to Learning and Skills beacon status, both for the sector and individual organisations. "The early indications are that beacons are positively influencing the performance of other providers in the sector," says a spokeswoman.
But what do the providers think? When Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service became a learning and skills beacon a year ago, it took the organisation by surprise. "It wasn't something we even knew about," says Simon Bygrave, a senior training officer. "When we got it, we thought, 'What does this mean? What's the catch?' But there wasn't a catch. It was really about flag-waving - other people saying, 'This is an excellent organisation, and other organisations in their field should come and talk to them.' " Inspectors had named Hertfordshire's fire service as a "world-class provider of work-based learning". Its key strengths, say the inspectors, included excellent training resources, well-delivered training, good support to trainees and excellent retention rates.
"It has made us think a bit harder about how we get our messages out to other fire brigades about what we are doing," says Mr Bygrave. "And to a degree it has made us push ourselves. Someone else has said you are doing this well, so come and learn from us.
Barnfield College in Luton is so far the only general FE college to meet the exacting criteria for beacon status. The award was triggered by the college's inspection last February, when it was declared a key partner in contributing to the economic regeneration of the area with centres of vocational excellence in computing, housebuilding and motor vehicle engineering. Ofsted inspectors found the college's leadership and management outstanding. The quality of teaching and learning and student achievement was outstanding in four curriculum areas, good in five and satisfactory in three.
To disseminate its good practice, Barnfield received an extra pound;90,000 from the LSC. Jim Horrocks, the principal, and his leadership team decided to approach this process with caution. "We decided we would control our dissemination rather than be victims of a ffeeding frenzy," he says.
But how has the beacon award benefited the college? "We're very proud of it," says Mr Horrocks. "I'm just the conductor of a wonderful orchestra.
What we have to bear in mind is that all those musicians learned to play years ago. So being a good college has been a long time in the making.
"As far as I'm concerned, the depth of pride runs down to security, caretakers, cleaners, right the way through the business. One of the impressive things was when an Ofsted inspector said, 'I have never seen so many happy students.' And I thought, 'Well, you won't get happy students if you ain't got happy staff.' " At MG Rover Group Ltd, work-based learning has been declared outstanding by the Adult Learning Inspectorate. The company has around 100 trainees on advanced and foundation modern apprenticeships in engineering, technology and manufacturing, as well as business administration and management programmes.
MG Rover's creation three years ago from the tumultuous break-up of the Rover Group has had unexpected benefits for the company's trainees. The firm was once spread across different locations but is now concentrated on one site at Longbridge in Birmingham. This, says Maureen Moisy of MG's young people development department, has opened up many more opportunities for learners. "They have a much more diverse range of learning experiences now," she says. "We have accounting, legal departments and international sourcing."
Since MG Rover's glowing inspection and its gaining beacon status, Ms Moisy says it has resisted resting on its laurels. "It helped us look at what else we can do, what we need to develop. It makes sure we have plans in place to act on that."
She says there were initial worries about the extra workload that beacon status could bring, given the emphasis on dissemination. For instance, there are only three people in the training department for young people.
"We were warned not to rush at it and take our eye off what we are supposed to be doing," she says. "It is as a very prestigious award and we were highly delighted to receive it."