Institutional Self-Assessment

Institutional and departmental self-assessment will become increasingly important instruments in inspection systems operated by the Further Education Funding Council (FEFQ and the Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs). Their introduction is being primarily driven by the need to reduce costs associated with quality assurance. Post-16 institutions can currently be required to report to a number of external sponsors and over the past three to four years the cost of these, not only to the institution but to the sponsors, has become prohibitive. The FEFC has yet to publish the guidelines for self-assessment and these should be available during 1997. At present it is not clear when the new regimes will be introduced, whether immediately at the beginning of the next four-year cycle, or part way into the cycle.

The introduction of self-assessment also makes good educational sense. It allows an institution to reflect carefully on its strengths and weaknesses and articulate these to the appropriate sponsors or external organisations. Increasingly, the quality assurance frameworks from a numberof sponsors are converging, self-assessment will assist this growing unification.

There is a great deal of commonality between the FEFC’s proposed framework for self-assessment and that which is being considered by the Training and Enterprise Councils.

The FEFC self-assessment approach will be more widely adopted over the next few cycles of inspections that the FE colleges will be exposed to. The FEFC Circular 96/12 and the Annual Report from the Chief Inspector indicates that self-assessment will become increasingly important within the FEFC inspection process. There will be a much greater emphasis given to the curriculum, teaching, learning and achievement within institutions.

The basic questions that will be asked about a particular self-assessment report, whether for an institution or a department will be:

*   Was it clear and concise?
*   Did it provide a realistic evaluation?
*   Were the judgements supported by evidence?
*   How did the judgements compare with those of the inspection team?

The FEFC has just carried out a review of the first four-year cycle of inspection and looked at self-assessments that institutions have submitted. Analysis of self-assessments that were deemed to be good were as follows:

*   Well-structured, clear and concise;
*   Clearly identified strengths and weaknesses;
*   Wide and meaningful consultation with staff, students, governors and employers;
*   Integral with college’s cycle of quality assurance;
*   Sound judgements made, supported by evidence; and
*   Clearly expressed action plans for future development

Weak self-assessment reports, however, solicited the following comments:

*   Descriptive, rather than evaluative;
*   Insufficient attention was paid to teaching and learning;
*   Insufficient account of student achievements;
*   Absence of consultation with staff, students, governors and employers;
*   Lack of reference to the college’s strategic plans and performance indicators;
*   Failure to identify significant weaknesses;
*   An emphasis on systems ratherthan their effectiveness; and
*   Absence of clear proposals to address weakness where this was identified.

The FEFC Inspectors and college staff agree that self-assessment is not an easy process and that staff and institutions will need a great deal of support by way of professional development.

Circular 96/12 indicates how the inspection process will be operated over the next few cycles. There will be a designated college inspector, who will make frequent visits to each college. The FEFC will continue the four-year inspection cycle, leading to nationally published reports. The inspection report will carry a number of inspection grades, as before. However, there will be some changes in later cycles compared with that of the first four-year cycle. There will be a separate assessment of governance and management during college inspections. There will be a revision of grade and descriptors to make them clearer to colleges, their customers and other readers of the colleges’ inspection reports. There will also tie an attempt to distinguish college missions from college responsiveness, the grading of which has conveyed ambiguous messages.

Self-assessment will become the starting point for inspection and most certainly will be referred to in the inspection report The new inspection approach could lead to college accreditation. In order for a college to gain accreditation, the Inspectors will look for the existence in the college of formal and effective quality assurance arrangements. Clear evidence must also be provided of value being added to student achievements through their learning; of the setting and consistent achievement of appropriate targets for institutional performance; of customer satisfaction; and also an action plan that indicates that effective action is going to be taken to address weaknesses in provision.

An article in a future issue of PSSI will focus more on the operational detail, as it relates to a science department within a college.

Dick Evans is Principal of Stockport College. He chairs the ASE Post-16 Science Committee.

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