Colleges look set to get all the inspection reforms they have been demanding including a three-year inspection cycle, with a lighter touch and more self-evaluation.
The Office for Standards in Education this week announced that the confusing five and seven-point scales would be scrapped in favour of a simpler four-point scale.
In a move which the Association of Colleges said was particularly welcome, rigid evaluation criteria will become "non-statutory guidance", giving colleges and inspectors much more flexibility. Inspection teams will also be smaller.
The recommendations follow detailed consultations and have gone out for final consultations until January 31, 2005. Rosemary Clarke, quality manager for the AoC, said significant advances had been made already.
"The AoC has lobbied hard for these reforms. This is not the final hurdle but Ofsted has been very even-handed and we are optimistic.
"Colleges have worked hard to produce honest self-assessment schemes."
The reforms - particularly the new grading scale and the introduction of self-assessment - are part of a bigger move to integrate the inspection of childcare and nursery education, schools, colleges and other post-16 providers.
The new grades will be "outstanding, good, satisfactory and inadequate" - the same grades as proposed for schools. The framework is also to take into account the extent to which employers' needs are being met.
While there is still a considerable amount of work to be done through the next phase of consultation, Ofsted believes it should lead to fairer and more comparable standards when judging work in colleges and school sixth-forms.
Ms Clarke said the simplification of the scales was much-needed. "Before, there was a seven-point scale for lessons and a five-point scale for aspects such as governance. The new system will be much clearer."