THE FIRST area-wide inspection of post-16 education and training has begun in the London boroughs of Hackney and Islington with a warning that the Further Education Funding Council will not shy away from using its new powers of intervention to tackle substandard provision.
Top Downing Street officials have told FEFC management that they expect them to act fast where they find underperforming colleges. The council does not have the power to deal with failing colleges - which are legally independent corporations - in the way the Office for Standards in Education can close a failing school.
But its officials are being expected to use their new power, announced on the recommendation of the Public Accounts committee report into Halton college, to "nominate up to two governors for any college board and require observers or assessors to attend governing body meetings" where it is considered necessary.
Education Secretary David Blunkett said last month that achievement rates in Hackney and Islington - where A-level students' average points scores were 10.4 and 12.1 respectively against a national average of 17.8 - are "well short of what we want". Achievement rates at Hackney Community College and City and Islington College, at 34 per cent and 43 per cent, were both far below the average for FE colleges nationwide of 75 per cent.
Sections of schools' provision in the area deemed to have fallen too far below acceptable standards have already been farmed out to private suppliers, and Mr Blunkett said: "We have shown that we are prepared to take dramatic action to improve school standards for pupils in the areas. We must not shirk from tackling learning and training for 16-19 as well." Area inspections should be a "powerful force for change", he said.
FEFC inspectors began work at Hackney Community College last week, and will make their first visit to City and Islington college later this month. School and work based-provision in both local authorities will then be inspected by OFSTED and the Training Standards Council in turn, and their joint report is due in February.
A further four area inspections - in Coventry, Lambeth, Newcastle and Tower Hamlets - will follow next term, with a further 10 scheduled to be completed by the end of 2000. The FEFC's programme of college inspections will continue in parallel with the area inspections, and will be timetabled to coincide where possible.