What makes a college run well?

15th February 2008 at 00:00
Figures on learning and teaching may have lecturers congratulating themselves, but they can do better. Neil Munro reports.

Learning and teaching in Scottish colleges was "very good" or "good" in almost all the subjects inspected between 2004 and 2007. This covered 212 subject reviews in 31 colleges, where 1 per cent of grades was fair and none unsatisfactory.

While lecturers may take this as a pat on the back, a report issued today by HMIE noted that over half the scores were merely "good", which meant that "strengths outweigh weaknesses".

Inspectors' judgments are that, while the strengths have a significantly positive impact, "the quality of learners' experiences is diminished in some way by aspects in which improvement is required ... With under half the grades recorded as "very good", colleges should take action to eliminate the weaknesses which were recorded".

The most prominent weakness, accounting for 20 per cent and one which features repeatedly in HMIE college reports, is the ineffective use of ICT in teaching. Lack of systematic checks on students' understanding, absence of feedback and a narrow range of teaching approaches are among the others.

The progress and results achieved by students score slightly less well, with their performance in 86 per cent of the 212 subject reviews "very good" or "good"; but 14 per cent were "fair". For inspectors, however, the significance is the low proportion of "very good" outcomes - 26 per cent in this case.

The most difficult challenge for colleges in learner progress remains student drop-out and low attainment: these factors accounted for 85 per cent of all weaknesses in the subjects covered.

The inspectors found that quality accommodation, by and large, led to quality learning, as well as the more obvious educational factors such as personal learning plans and strong support for learners.

The HMIE reviews, which are prepared for the Scottish Funding Council, also cover the effectiveness of college leadership and management, which was found to be "very good" or "good" in 28 of the 31 colleges, a score of 90 per cent. Of the remaining three, James Watt and Inverness were two of the well-publicised exceptions; in the official language, HMIE "was not confident (they were) managing well and improving the quality of services for learners".

The report said a key ingredient in a well-run college was that "the senior management team and the principal shared a clear vision and provided effective and enthusiastic leadership". Good links with the outside world was another factor.

Where leadership was weaker, lack of communication in developing a college's strategic and operational direction was found to be at fault. The inspectors also wanted to see more target-setting leading to measurable results.

But the inspections also revealed that it was in the area of educational leadership and direction that the most innovative and sector-leading practices were found, accounting for over 32 per cent of examples cited. By contrast, quality assurance and quality improvement only accounted for three instances of groundbreaking work.

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