"Quality assurance and enhancement should be as common a discourse on boards of management as finance, and they should spend as much time on it," Ray Harris, chairman of the FE quality working group of the Scottish Funding Council, said.
These moves are seen as a step forward and a vote of confidence in colleges after years of concentration on making them financially stable. The Auditor General for Scotland gave them a relatively clean bill of financial health last month.
Backing up the plans will be a fresh approach by HMIE. It is to embark on an "annual engagement" with colleges - a visit once a year to each to check how they are shaping up on the three quality themes.
Speaking at Carnegie College last week, Iain MacRobert of HMIE, told a conference on quality enhancement that this would amount to "a professional dialogue" with staff and students. It would involve two inspectors paying a visit for a day.
HMIE would pass on its findings to the funding council and the college, and these would be fed into the external reviews which the inspectorate undertakes for each college every four years.
These reviews would also change, Mr MacRobert said. They would be "a very, very light touch" for colleges with a strong track record. They might even have their four-yearly cycle delayed if they could demonstrate ongoing success.
The SFC believes the majority of colleges are in that category, and HMIE has decided they will receive a "core review" carried out by five or six inspectors over three days, instead of up to 20 over five days. The annual engagement with colleges will ensure the "lighter touch" will not let them escape scrutiny, it is being suggested.
The new deal will involve the inspectorate in a "risk and proportionality" assessment, based on its analysis of the three quality themes:
- high-quality learning - risk that learners will not experience high-quality learning, progress well or achieve high-quality outcomes
- learner engagement - risk that learners will not actively engage in enhancing their own learning and the work and life of the college
- quality culture - risk that the college will not manage well andor not enhance the quality of its services for learners.
This will replace the present approach to college inspections, which differs considerably from reports on schools and involves "confidence statements" - a straight yesno as to whether colleges are managed effectively and are doing well by their students. In future, these statements will be more sharply focused on the basis of whether HMIE "is confidenthas limited confidenceis not confident" that colleges have passed the new quality test.
Bill Harvey, deputy director of learning and teaching at the SFC, assured the conference that work remained to be done to ensure everybody knew what "limited confidence" meant.
The funding council and HMIE insist that quality assurance and enhancement must be "college-led", but guidance from the SFC pins down boards of management to annual statements on these reviews - even to the extent of inviting their progress reports to be no more than three or four pages long. The first of these, for 2008-09, must be sent to the SFC by November 30, 2009.
The SFC is marking its commitment to the agenda by setting up a quality, learning and teaching committee, which will hold its first meeting on June 23. It will be chaired by Sandy Watson, chair of the board at Angus College, formerly chief executive and director of education with Angus Council.
A major innovation of the new quality agenda is an extension of student participation in judging what colleges offer and deliver. The annual reports on colleges' performance include learner responses to their FE experience: the most recent show that nine out of 10 believe it has been positive.
But the SFC expects colleges to go the extra mile, in particular:
- involving students in all processes relating to quality assurance and enhancement
- including student representatives on all college bodies
- having a clear policy for student involvement in quality processes.
The funding council's guidance to colleges says they should be more proactive in dealing with learners on quality issues, but it accepts that FE students are a diverse group and that "the student voice which is most easily heard may not be representative of the student body".
Elaine Ner, student president at Carnegie College, is a pioneer of "student engagement", having helped pilot the role of student reviewer on HMIE college inspections. This has been regarded as successful and there will be a student on every college review in the next four-year cycle from 2008-12.
Ms Ner suggested students should be involved in focus groups and peer review evaluations of their own learning. This could involve training one student per course to take the lead and feed back findings to college quality managers.