Far-reaching reforms were set in place this week to give senior managers in further education considerable control over the inspection of standards in their own colleges.
The next four-year inspection round starts in September when colleges will be told to draft self-assessment reports before the Further Education Funding Council inspection teams go in.
The speed with which colleges are freed from the heavy hand of bureaucracy will depend on how accurately they are seen by inspectors to have assessed their strengths and weaknesses.
Pressure for a lighter touch by FEFC head office was overwhelming in the latest round of consultations with colleges. More than 98 per cent of 251 colleges which responded supported a revised inspection framework.
Jim Donaldson, FEFC chief inspector, said: "Responsibility for quality must rest with those in the institutions and we want to shift the balance of inspections over the next four years."
The road to self-assessment has been fraught with difficulties. The FEFC originally hoped to give most colleges a freer hand by this year. But a hard-hitting report from former chief inspector Terry Melia in 1995 concluded that colleges were far from ready.
Renewed demands from principals prompted a rethink. The FEFC also came under pressure from the Department for Education and Employment to revise arrangements and bring about a common standards framework for all post-16 education and training.
David Melville, FEFC chief inspector, said he believed this had now been achieved while retaining many features of the present framework, "which has shown itself to be both robust and effective."
Inspections over the next four years will focus more on the curriculum, teaching standards and students' achievements. The average time spent on full college inspections will also be slashed from 70 to 40 days, with a likely pro rata cut in the workforce of 700 part-time inspectors with the FEFC.
Many managers are still likely to be dissatisfied with what they will see as a slow speed of change. A kite-mark of excellence from the council is to be drawn-up which will go to the best self-assessors.
More than 97 per cent of colleges responding to consultations backed the idea of this accreditation. But one in five wanted the changes introduced sooner than proposed in the FEFC consultation report published this week.
Mr Donaldson said: "The council expects to consult colleges this summer about the criteria they will have to meet."
The FEFC has published guide lines on self-assessment and contacted the first 108 FE, sixth-form and specialist to be affected. The five-point grading system has also been revised, bringing the definitions closer to those used by the Office for Standards in Education for schools: grade 1 is "outstanding provision which has many strengths and few weaknesses."
The council has decided to assess governance and management separately after numerous objections that failures in one area cast the other in an unduly bad light.