Further education colleges received the strongest endorsement of any sector in the HMIE analysis of Scottish education, published last week.
Improving Scottish Education said college inspections in 2005-08 had shown that 99 per cent of grades for learning and teaching were good or very good, and there were "high levels of learner enthusiasm, engagement and motivation".
Problems with leadership were found in only three colleges over the four-year period, two of which had still to be resolved.
Iain MacRobert of the FE inspectorate described the colleges as presenting "an enviable picture in international terms". His portrait was of a vibrant sector which was a world removed from the early period of college incorporation when, as characterised by John McCann of Scotland's Colleges, there were "ambulances all over the place".
"We are delighted," Sue Pinder, lead principal for Scotland's Colleges, said.
Graham Donaldson, the head of the inspectorate, said FE in Scotland was "dynamic and responsive and had a lot to be proud of".
At a series of presentations on the HMIE report at Hampden Park last week, Dr MacRobert praised the high levels of student retention, attainment, wider achievement and progression to further study or work. "This should be counted a major success given that, on any reasonable expectation, you might think that many of these students would have dropped out or would not even be there at all," he said.
Many of the negative aspects of school teaching and learning, which feature in the report, received the opposite press in the college analysis. For instance, wider student achievement and skills were recognised as well as formal attainment; it was often a case of "eitheror" in schools, inspectors found.
And there was a "flexible, accessible and relevant curriculum" - again in contrast to schools - which Dr MacRobert said was "hard to fault".
Despite frequent headlines about the sour industrial relations climate in FE, the ways in which staff are managed and work comes in for praise. Many colleges had restructured and empowered their middle managements, giving them mentoring and support - "a sea change from the command and control of a few years ago", Dr MacRobert said.
Staff also worked increasingly in teams, particularly to provide guidance and ease transitions for students moving into and through the college. In the previous 2002-05 report, there were "silos of staff in colleges, but not any more", he recalled.
Dr MacRobert singled out the productive relationships between staff and students as a crucial factor in building high standards and expectations: "Get these relationships right and you will find support from learners for the institution as a whole. Get it wrong and it doesn't matter how good the institution is."
The main criticisms from inspectors centre on teaching by some lecturers who, despite the plaudits for their work, are urged to become even better by using a wider variety of teaching approaches and apply ICT more effectively in their classes.
They also had to be more systematic in checking whether students understood what they were being taught. "It's important learners get ongoing feedback, not just formal assessment, to ensure their learning is secure," he said.
The report calls for continuing professional development to be more systematic, since it was important to monitor whether it was having an effect on learning and teaching.
Next week: full HMIE analysis of college reviews
HOW THE INSPECTORS RATE STUDENT PROGRESS AND ACHIEVEMENT
Adult learning and youth work, now known as community learning and development, must have a clearer sense of direction, the report concludes. Local leadership showed "wide variations", and improvement was needed in half of the authorities. Partnerships between agencies was "a key strength". There were three areas of "significant improvement":
- youth work is good in "most" authorities (75-90 per cent);
- adult learning is very good in the "majority" of authorities (50-74 per cent);
- "community capacity building" - learning which gives individuals confidence to take charge of their own future - is good or better in "almost all" authorities (91-99 per cent).
A LOW PRIORITY
The verdict on learning and skills among prisoners, which HMIE probes under contract to HM Inspectorate of Prisons, is that, while there are "highly motivated and engaged learners," there is a perception that provision is given a low priority.
The inspectors are sharply critical of the internal review processes which do not involve prisoners in their learning, resulting in "weak action planning with few measurable and time-bound targets".
The report continues: "In more than a few establishments, there is no recording of achievement on the individual learning plans of prisoners. Insufficient systematic monitoring of attainment and achievement makes it difficult for prisoners and staff to reflect on the progress made and to plan future learning activities."