Ngaio Crequer speculates on what direction FE inspections should take.
The framework for inspection developed by the Further Education Funding Council is clearly working well, and has been welcomed by the colleges because of its user-friendly approach.
It needs time to bed down, but it is never too early to think about how it should change in the future and the first question to ask is whether there is not too much quality assessment.
It is obviously necessary in further education for the first four years. There is no history of quality assessment in the sector. The colleges have not had a Council for National Academic Awards to validate courses or monitor quality.
The council has made a good start by asking colleges to assess themselves. This could form the basis of something more substantial. The council could then take a more hands-off monitoring role.
The colleges must be encouraged to write critical self-assessment reports. Colleges will initially use self-assessment as a marketing tool, but they must get beyond that. Colleges were at first frightened of inspections, but most now see them as necessary and valuable experience, and they are learning from the process.
But inspections impose a heavy burden. They take up a great deal of senior management time, and the council spends about 75 per cent of its time on preparation, visits, publication and follow-up. The council is using about 100 days per college, which costs about Pounds 35,000 per college inspection. It is a very cheap consultancy service for the sector.
By the end of this July, the council will have trained about 1,000 people as part-time inspectors and that will have seeded the sector. So there will be a cadre of people who know what quality and standards are about in further education.
At the end of the day it is the colleges which are responsible for their own standards. The council could get more involved in monitoring the self-assessment reports, visiting institutions where there is a clear need for an outside body to take a look, and becoming much more involved in propagating good practice.
After four years all colleges will have their own nominee who has been on an inspection team. On average each college will have two people who are part-time trained inspectors. Each college will have produced its own college assessment report. The climate will then have changed. We will no longer be in the area of missionary inspections, helping the sector to come to terms with quality and standards.
The sector will have to move on. One way would be to reduce the college inspections, say to every six or seven years. That would release inspector time to be spent on quality enhancement. This could include researching and publishing performance indicators, finding out which colleges are doing well, at little cost, or vice versa.
There could be more surveys looking at broad areas of provision. The council, for example, could look at engineering across the country, recommending good practice. It could examine why performance in one subject is so much better than another.
There could be a good in-service training role for the council, working presumably in parallel with the Further Education Development Association.
The comparison has to be made with the Office for Standards in Education, the school inspectors. It is a much bigger organisation, but they do not have the burden of inspections because it contracts them out. This frees OFSTED to stand back and take the wider view, something the FEFC does not have the means to do.
Which raises the question of whether there is any scope for contracting out FE inspections. Should the council consider contracting out to private training providers? Many would argue against this and say the present model of central inspection, peer review, including people from outside the service and involving the college through its nominee is the best one. But there should at least be a debate about whether this could be improved.
Looking well into the future, one must ask whether it is useful to persist with the dividing line between higher and further education. The former polytechnics fought a long and hard battle to achieve parity with the old universities. Now that they have established their place alongside their colleagues, one must ask what was all the fuss about.
Many people outside education use the words "higher" and "further" without knowing or caring that they mean different things. Should we not have a single post-16 education service? There are already strong links between the two sectors, in terms of both funding and courses.
One advantage for the universities would be that they could model their quality assessment procedures on the FE sector, and abandon their cumbersome two-tier approach - a quality council which looks at process, and funding councils which look at individual subjects.
The other anomaly is school sixth forms. Here OFSTED has its own responsibilities. Yet much of the work is the same as that going on in FE and will become more so as the vocational dimension of the national curriculum takes hold, and GNVQ is introduced in schools. Why should there be two different inspectorates looking at that?
Should the statutory school-leaving age mean what it says, ie that "school" should end at 16? That would not mean you have to do without all school sixth forms, but it might mean you use a common funding mechanism for all post-16-year-olds wherever they go. It might also mean a common quality assessment model. Certainly anyone looking in from the outside would ask those questions.
The one overriding benefit of the FEFC inspection is that, because it uses a college nominee (and remember, she or he does not take part in the final grading) it involves the institution. An inspection which does not involve the institution is a waste of time.
An FE college is one of the most complex businesses in a town, and often one of the biggest. Newcastle, for example, has a funding allocation of nearly Pounds 18 million and recruits more than 13,000 students. It is vital that the sector builds up its management expertise. There should be high-quality courses, not just for principals, but for senior staff. In this the funding council and the FEDA, when it begins its work, will need to collaborate.
There should be some kind of fast track for people who are going to be the leaders of the FE colleges in the next 10 years. Raising management standards will be one way to ensure proper leadership in the future, and help to promote the image of the sector.