Letter: Give quality-conscious FE credit

March 22, 2002

The real question about your report "QAA report fingers FE" (THES, March 15) is "who doesn't try to finger FE?"

The sector's problem has been its naivety in getting on with the job rather than pouring effort into explaining why it cannot be done. We have demonstrated that expansion, social inclusion and modernisation can be achieved while maintaining a strong quality assurance framework.

The Quality Assurance Agency's review of Newham College's business and management HE provision - quoted as an example of failing higher education courses in FE colleges - involved 16 review person-days looking at provision for 31 FTE students taught by a team of five. The review's outcome - despite its perverse "not approved" judgement - was a reasonable 19 out of 24. Averages for the business and management programme area are 3.2 for 70 FE institutions compared with 3.6 for 40 higher education institutions. This is no basis for arguing that one sector is failing compared with another.

Nor is our difficulty one of being novices when it comes to QAA procedures. All providers of HE share one concern - QAA methodology. Our business review demonstrates that the inspection resource is out of all proportion to the volume of provision. Even so, the outcome is another full QAA review, which does not represent good use of public money.

Another difficulty is failure to secure sensible and transparent judgements. In our business and management review, a typical Edexcel administrative mishap was misinterpreted as a serious failure in quality management, despite it having no impact on student achievement. After the review, we had recourse to the QAA's other procedures. It was ambivalent about the need for a complaints procedure and confused about how complaints should be dealt with. All other inspections (including QAA subject reviews) have found our quality management systems to be good.

Martin Tolhurst
Principal and chief executive
Newham College of Further Education

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