Inverness College has undergone a "transformation" under its new principal, according to HMIE.
The latest inspection of the college heaps praise on John Spencer, who has been in the post for just two years. He showed "visionary and empowering leadership", said the inspectors. "He worked effectively with the board to set the college's strategic direction."
Since HMIE last reported on the college in 2007, when it expressed a vote of no confidence in the leadership, extensive restructuring of the board, executive and senior and operational management had taken place, enabling the inspectors to state now that "management at all levels was effective".
The report also pays tribute to Mo Shepherd, the chair of the board, who was said to have been "particularly influential in initiating positive change in the way the board of management operated".
Now, inspectors concluded, "the values promoted by the principal, board of management and SMT (senior management team) had transformed the college culture".
Their report continued: "Most managers and staff were well motivated and enthusiastic. Empowered staff, working well together in teams, had developed the curriculum and improved services for learners. The college had improved relationships with external organisations. Overall, retention and student outcome rates were high."
Inverness has also shown improvement across the board in most of the seven college-wide areas which come under scrutiny. Educational leadership, guidance and support, quality assurance and quality improvement - all rated "fair" or "unsatisfactory" in 2007 - are now judged "good".
The arrangements for access and inclusion have also improved, but only from "unsatisfactory" to "fair". The two other indicators, covering staff and resources, were graded the same as last time - "fair" and "good" respectively.
Shortcomings were identified in access and inclusion, although the inspectors found it benefited from "strong leadership" and "effective arrangements". This was particularly true of the vice-principal, a centre for learning and student support known as CLaSS and the business development team.
But the college earned only a rating of "fair" because it had not published an annual report on its disability equality scheme or updated its race equality action plan. Inspectors also judged that monitoring of equalities was not systematic enough and that staff did not promote equality of opportunity effectively.
Despite many positive statements on the way staff matters had improved, the overall verdict of "fair" resulted from the college's failure to provide mandatory training in the protection of children and vulnerable adults and to run professional review sessions within the past year for the majority of staff.
The college's approaches to learning and teaching and student progress get the thumbs-up from the inspectorate. It found learners were very well motivated, actively engaged in their work and received good feedback from almost all staff (over 90 per cent). But the college has been asked to improve low retention and attainment rates in some courses.
Professor Spencer commented: "The report emphasised that the quality of learning and teaching has improved across the board in the college and, most importantly, that the students' experience of learning has also improved.
"We agreed upon a three year development plan in 2007 and are now halfway through. The areas highlighted in the recent HMIE report which needed improvement were areas already on the development plan and identified for resolution within the next 18 months."
A DEN OF IDEAS
Inverness College uses the BBC's Dragons' Den as the model for a "business idea competition" to encourage students and staff to become more enterprising in their attitudes and behaviours.
The competition is presided over by three judges - one from the college, one entrepreneur and one from an enterprise agency - who choose a shortlist and meet with each finalist to discuss their ideas. It has grown in popularity, with 24 entries in the first year rising to 86 in the third year.
This is one of two cutting-edge initiatives which the inspectors singled out as being ahead of the rest of the sector. The other is a programme to prepare students, the majority with various problems, for the armed forces.
As well as developing physical fitness, the focus is on a set of core values - team-working, confidence-building, self-discipline and citizenship. A central feature is the building of learning activities around planning and staging a charity event.
Although many students go on to join the armed forces, others gain enough confidence to get a job in civvy street or move to another FE programme.