THE gap between the best and worst colleges remains "unacceptably wide", according to the final report of the Further Education Funding Council chief inspector.
In his fourth annual report, published yesterday, FEFC chief inspector Jim Donaldson says that the introduction of the Standards Fund - designed to help underachieving colleges and share the good practice of the best ones - had been one of the most significant developments of his time in charge.
The fund, worth pound;80 million this year, had been a "powerful tool" in driving up standards, he said. But narrowing the gap between good and bad colleges should remain the priority as colleges enter the new regime of the Learning and Skills Council and Adult Learning Inspectorate. "There is a danger that attention currently focused on quality and standards will be deflected on to other matters. I wouldn't want colleges to take their eye off the ball," he said.
Mr Donaldson's swansong as chief inspector praises steady progress in retention and achievement rates - up by 2 and 3 per cent respectively for 16 to 18-year-olds and adults - while warning of serious shortcomings.
Around a quarter of colleges have poor management information systems that fail to keep proper track of students. "Seven or eight years after incorporation, that's just not good enough," Mr Donaldson said. Governance was still unsatisfactory in one in seen colleges, and management was substandard in one in nine.
Nine of 112 colleges inspected last year were judged unsatisfactory in at least three areas of their work, while 15 colleges received a clean sweep of good or outstanding grades.
Overall, the proportion of good or outstanding grades fell from 63 per cent to 50 per cent in curriculum areas and 68 per cent to 54 per cent in cross college provision.
Jim Donaldson said he was "particularly disturbed" by the teaching of basic skills, which had fewer good and outstanding lessons than any other curriculum area - only 49 per cent compared with an average of 62 per cent.
A higher proportion of part-time staff taught basic skills than any other curriculum area - and the use of part-time staff continues to increase. Managers should make sure staff are properly trained and give basic skills a higher emphasis, he said.
Advances like benchmarking and accredited status for colleges had helped the FEFCs concentrate on improving quality and not just reporting on weaknesses.
"Quality assurance is much more important now. We have moved away from colleges with companies and a business focus and very much more towards the needs of the individual learner through inclusive learning," he said.
"FE should be no less customer focused than industry or commerce. Colleges are not just accountable to the paymasters, they are accountable most especially to the learners and communities from which they come."