Quality checks to be more frequent
Reforms being looked at include more regular short inspections of sixth-forms and colleges. An independent inspection system to assess programmes funded by the training and enterprise councils is also being considered.
Wide-ranging consultations were announced this week by Education and Employment Minister James Paice, following discussions with all the key players including the Training and Enterprise Councils, the Further Education Funding Council and the Office for Standards in Education.
Government commitment to a common inspection framework was spelled out in the third Competitiveness White Paper this spring. It followed numerous criticisms over the lack of consistency in the way quality was assessed in schools, colleges and the workplace.
The lack of a reliable guide on quality and hence relative costs of courses has dogged Government efforts to bring about a convergence of the funding regimes in the three sectors.
Mr Paice said: "The Government is committed to a rigorous regime of quality assurance across post-16 education and training." He insisted that it was essential to drive up standards of training funded through the TECs and to promote public confidence in all publicly funded education and training.
But the reforms will not mean the setting up of a common inspectorate for all three sectors. Both Terry Melia, FEFC chief inspector, and Chris Humphries, TEC national council policy director, have expressed vehement opposition to this.
The TEC quality inspection regime involves up to 12 checks a year on employers and private training providers. If they meet agreed training criteria, they are guaranteed at least a three-year contract.
But the lack of longer-term big inspections which are published has led to criticisms over the apparent lack of public accountability.
Chris Humphries said: "We have a far more robust regime of continuous quality management. Colleges do not send in inspectors every couple of months as we do. The question is what level of external assessment do we need?" Colleges and school sixth-forms have fallen foul of the opposite problem. Big inspections in the name of accountability have left gaps in the short-term checks on quality and strategic planning.
Dr Melia criticised college managers last year for failing to be sufficiently self-critical. He postponed plans for more college self-assessment and a lighter touch on the big inspections. His solution was to introduce more TEC-style short-term checks.
A working group of TEC and college chiefs has been looking at ways of bringing their inspection regimes more in line, without increasing bureaucracy or having the sectors imposing unsuitable inspection regimes on each other.
Joint pilot schemes have been run to test new schemes but they have so far been hampered by too much bureaucracy.