Ben Russell reports from the Association of Principals of Colleges annual conference in Bristol
Auditors' conclusions on the financial health of colleges are to be published for the first time, the chief inspector of colleges said this week.
All inspection reports from the Further Education Funding Council will include the broad conclusions of financial watchdogs - regardless of what they reveal - as well as comments on teaching standards, Jim Donaldson told principals.
And a code of practice is to be drawn up to spell out exactly what colleges can expect from their four-yearly inspection.
The aim was to improve accountability while protecting colleges against wrongful allegations.
Mr Donaldson, speaking to the Association of Principals of Colleges conference in Bristol, fleshed out proposals for a new, arm's-length approach to college inspection.
He said reforms were being drawn up to increase openness in colleges and reduce the burden of inspections on hard-pressed teaching and managerial staff.
"It's changing the relationship between the Further Education Funding Council and colleges. We want much more targeting of our resources in the future, so where we are content with the way a college is performing we can concentrate on colleges where there is a problem."
Mr Donaldson is developing a raft of proposals for wide-ranging reforms of the college inspection system. He is aiming at a new, slimline regime as colleges go into the second round of their four-yearly inspection cycle to put more emphasis on self-assessment.
He spelled out his proposed code of practice at the conference yesterday. Broad guidance will be published aimed at ensuring that all inspections are "independent, responsive, fair and open," he said.
The FEFC inspectors would be expected to be responsive to the particular aims and economic or social circumstances of every college they visited. A similar approach to individuals, including staff, students and governors would be expected in an effort to gain the "respect, confidence and co-operation" needed for effective inspection.
Priority would always be given to the interests of students, he stressed. But this would not preclude the interests of others connected with the college.
And in a clear effort to cut the information overload which many colleges have complained of, he said inspectors must "avoid requests to the institutions being inspected for unnecessary or superfluous information".
The inspectors will be warned: "Do only what is necessary to arrive at fair and sustainable judgments."
FEFC inspectors should make evaluations which are " defensible and demonstrably sound and fair" derived from objective evidence and using agreed performance indicators and national targets.
Mr Donaldson will also call for a range of assurances to guaranteed clear and unequivocal communication in inspection reports while maintaining "confidentiality" particularly of sensitive or controversial issues.
Mr Donaldson said the full code would be developed in co-operation with principals. "I'm going to have a formal code and obviously I would like to invite comments."
As part of the new slimmed-down visits, auditors will join academic inspectors and will provide a detailed critique of colleges' financial affairs, along with a breakdown of their teaching performance.
Auditors' reports are currently confidential, but under the new system a summary of the auditors' findings will be included in published inspection reports.
Detailed financial surveys will remain for colleges and the FEFC alone, but the new openness will go far to reassure lingering concerns about colleges' financial affairs after a string of high profile failures in recent years.
Mr Donaldson said: "There will be an overall comment of the auditors' main finding, combining the audit with the inspection will reduce the burden on colleges."
Inspectors are also opening up the appeals system for colleges unhappy with their teaching ratings.
Mr Donaldson said he had no plans to reform appeals, but said it was important for principals to be clear how the system worked. Colleges are graded on a scale of one to five for their teaching, management and buildings.