Ministers are as anxious as TECs and colleges to streamline external and internal assessment systems. Lucy Ward reports.
The strain of being permanently under the microscope of official inspectors could soon be eased for colleges as plans to cut bureaucracy and demands for repeated quality checks near approval.
Inspection of colleges, training and enterprise councils and eventually school sixth-forms will be brought into line under far-reaching proposals being considered by senior government officials and all key agencies for the three sectors.
After more than three years struggling to meet the demands of as many as six different external quality checks - on top of the exhausting demands of inspection by the Further Education Funding Council - colleges can be sure that their plight is, at last, on the political agenda.
And, after looking enviously at TECs and lamenting the discrepancies in the quality controls imposed on the two sectors, they can find comfort in the fact that efforts are under way to bring about a common framework.
Progress towards the long-awaited reform is advancing on several fronts at once. At the Department for Education and Employment, a steering group drawn from all the major players in inspection and quality assurance has been formed with the task of bringing coherence to the plethora of different standards and criteria applied to post-16 education and training.
In line with pledges made in the Government's May 1995 Competitiveness White Paper for closer links between the various quality assessment bodies, the group aims to hammer out a more unified quality framework broadly applicable to all providers.
TECs and colleges will experience the results first, but the schools watchdog, OFSTED, is also involved, and will draw on the findings. At the same time, separate moves are in train to review inspection and quality controls in the further education and TEC worlds.
The FEFC has already completed its consultation - amid some controversy after allegations that the chief inspector Dr Terry Melia had jumped the gun on the results in his annual report - and a preliminary model for a lighter-touch inspection process has been agreed by its inspection working group.
Colleges have been judged too poor at self-criticism for a swift move to full self-assessment, but in the second four-year inspection round - beginning next September - internal quality assurance will take on much greater significance.
TECs, meanwhile, face considerably more radical change. While the FEFC's inspection regime, though undoubtedly a strain for colleges, is widely regarded as a success by ministers, the TECs' attempts to develop methods of self-assessment are acknowledged to have run into problems.
With each individual TEC left to devise its own system, approaches and standards are, inevitably, patchy. A DFEE consultation paper on changes to TEC quality controls showed how current arrangements focused "disproportionately on systems and not sufficiently on the quality and effectiveness of training", while noting how the proliferation of individual TEC approaches meant providers contracting with more than one faced an undue burden of different requirements.
To remedy the problem, ministers earlier this year proposed a beefed-up self-assessment regime for training providers and the introduction of external inspection for TEC-funded training to help to boost public confidence in its quality.
Two TECs are already piloting the new quality framework with a small number of providers. Both consultations, particularly the proposed changes for TECs, and the national steering group, have drawn on a recently completed three-year project run by the North West government office and involving six FE colleges in the region.
The project, labouring under the title "Towards a unified approach to quality assurance", aimed to tackle the problem of spiralling quality checks and demands for information being faced by all providers of training and assessment. Colleges, in particular, were found to be sinking under the weight of checks and controls as they tried to meet the requirements of different sources of funding.
The government office found there was "potential for time-consuming repetition of information, misunderstanding and disorganisation", with a knock-on effect on staff morale and institutions' attitude to quality.
Initial consultation with colleges quickly won backing for a move to establish a comprehensive quality framework - effectively a model for a database of quality information for each institution from which it would be possible easily to extract the relevant information as needed.
In a revealing exercise that confirmed early impressions, the project began in 1993 by comparing and contrasting the various quality approaches, including FEFC inspection demands, TEC quality controls on providers, Investors in People and the Common Accord - the set of principles on quality assessment of National Vocational Qualifications.
The result was a detailed chart printed on pale pink card - affectionately known as the salmon fillet to those involved in the project - graphically showing the wide variations among the eight systems analysed.
The next phase of the exercise saw six north-west colleges and the government office working together, with input from TECs and schools, to draw up a common core of quality assurance elements intended for use as a basis for self-assessment for post-16 education and training organisations and for external inspection purposes.
The result, completed last March, was outlined in a new, pyramid-shaped chart of key areas for assessment, with learner achievement at its apex, neatly summing up all the demands on colleges and other providers.
Fran Holbert, national project director, stresses that the project aimed to simplify, not exacerbate, the problem of excessive quality checks. "The last thing this is is another approach plastered over the other seven. It's like having four glasses and then being offered a tray to put them on. This framework is the tray and it is supposed to make things easier."
The project's findings have already fed into proposals for the revised college and TEC quality assurance regimes, and form the basis for the work of the national steering group aiming to bring the full range of assessment approaches - including those of NCVQ and OFSTED - more closely into line.
A key challenge now, already raised in the DFEE consultation paper, will be to find a way of applying that framework to TECs, given the different categories of training provider they fund.
The North West project, running over three years, came up against the difficulty of finding a quality framework flexible enough to be used by colleges teaching large groups of students and TECs funding employers to train as few as one member of staff.
Proposals for external inspection have also caused hackles to rise among a minority of TECs, who see no reason to admit inspectors from the world of education to assess workplace training. It is not yet clear whether a common pool of inspectors could be created to serve both TECs and colleges, or how far TECs might set up their own inspection system to monitor each other.
There are wider concerns among TECs over the issue of cost, amid fears that external inspection would be funded through top-slicing the training budget. Another worry is that, unless the framework is flexible, employers could be deterred from providing training.
David Forrester, head of post-16 education and training at the DFEE, acknowledges that TECs and colleges are "coming from different poles".
Colleges, like schools, must move from an inspection-dominated regime to greater self-assessment, while TECs, with a system inspired by industry practice of internal controls, must learn to live with external inspection.
The combining of the education and employment departments under one umbrella in 1995 paved the way for a "merger dividend", including the move to convergence of quality assurance, he believes. "The trick must be to continue the best of both, and build a format that bridges the differences between the two."
Whatever the conclusions, some changes at least are not far off. Ministers, though anxious to be seen not to rush, want the TEC external inspection regime in place "at the earliest practical opportunity" - implying a phasing-in by next spring at the latest.