Self-assessment is at the heart of the Learning and Skills Council's plans for improving quality. Joe Clancy reports
Caroline Neville initiated a lively debate when she introduced the first item on the agenda at the first meeting in her drive to improve quality in colleges.
The former principal of Norwich college posed the question: how do we define quality? It took the rest of the meeting to come up with an answer.
Around the table were gathered principals and senior managers from a dozen or more colleges, plus officials from the Department for Education and Skills and the Association of Colleges.
She said: "What was discovered was that the learner has a view, colleges have a view, the Learning and Skills Council has a view, and the Government has a view on what is quality, and these views do not always come together.
"It depends on the customer. There is a different understanding of what quality means for different client groups."
Roger Marriott, the LSC's director of evaluation, who is assisting her in the quality drive, said different measurements of quality provide wide-ranging results.
He said: "There have been substantial improvements in success rates over the past five years, during which time the proportion of learners who gained the qualification they began has increased dramatically.
"Learners' views are positive about the experiences they have. But inspection outcomes give a different picture. There has not been the same degree of improvement in levels of performance."
Quality is one of the five areas on the LSC's "Agenda for Change", and Ms Neville, now the LSC's national director for learning, is spearheading the initiative to integrate quality and high standards into the work of all colleges.
She added: "We are trying to eradicate unsatisfactory provision. We want to move to a position where provision is good or better.
"We hear a lot about the importance of colleges being responsive to the needs of employers. But how do we measure that high quality experience for the employer and the employee?
"Colleges have not focused on the employer market as much as the Government would like because that has not been at the top of the inspection agenda."
The general consensus of the meetings is that quality improvement will be led by the three Ss - self-assessment, simplification and sharing good practice.
Self-assessment will be at the centre of LSC strategy, she said, with the aim that all colleges will accurately evaluate their own performance through lesson-observation and support provided through a network of colleges.
Mr Marriott added: "Self-assessment is a constructive, critical process where you are examining strengths and weaknesses. By seeking out evidence, you are able to inform your own quality improvement plan.
"There is a strong correlation between good inspection outcomes and those colleges that are good at accurate self-assessment. We see self-assessment as being central to identification by colleges themselves of what improvements are required."
The two believe the quality drive will be assisted by setting up networks of colleges which share good practice. Ms Neville said: "There are some parts of the sector that are performing extremely well and the sector has the capacity to improve itself. Colleges need to work together to realise that capacity more effectively."
Mr Marriott said there was a strong consensus about the need to work together in order to find out what changes were needed - work included peer group reviews and "improvement networks" which bring different colleges together - for mutual gains.
"There is already a lot of sharing going on, but it is informal and ad hoc, and there are some groups of staff or individuals who don't know how to access it."
They cited Hampshire as one example of where college staff are forming networks which co-operate in the assessment of teaching and learning in their own and each other's institutions.
One college to benefit was Eastleigh, which endured a savage inspection report in 1997, but is now a beacon college after 10 out of 12 curriculum areas were rated good five years later.
Tony Lau-Walker, Eastleigh's principal and a member of the quality committee, said the transformation took place because self-assessment was taken seriously.
He said: "Self-assessment became much more rigorous and it involved everybody from part-time staff right through to the principal. We got outsiders involved in the monitoring process to validate our own judgements.
"Lesson observations are a real key to developing quality. It started a debate in the college so people understood what was good, very good, and what was unacceptable.
"We stopped some provision where it was poor and overlapping with neighbouring colleges and concentrated on the things we did well. All academic provision went and we focused on our technical and vocational provision.
"Student retention and satisfaction increased because they were getting a better service."
Chrissie Farley, principal of Hackney community college in east London, and also a committee member, said the contribution colleges make to the community needs to be examined. "We need to look at how colleges are measured in the wider sense of their contribution to the community and to the economy. The group hasn't started to have this debate yet."