Ministers stepped up their get-tough stance on failing colleges this week, taking the unprecedented step of "naming and shaming" troubled colleges. College leaders warned that the move could harm recovery plans.
At a photo-call at Lewisham College to celebrate excellence in further education by announcing ten "beacon" colleges that will spread best practice, education secretary David Blunkett said it was time to "raise and praise" the one-time Cinderella sector.
At the same event, however, his minister Baroness Blackstone provided the stick to go with the carrot. She warned that the government would "not tolerate unacceptable standards".
To set an example, four failing colleges were shamed: Matthew Boulton, which received the worst possible inspection grades for management and governance; Ealing Tertiary College, which this week was judged to be "less than satisfactory" in seven of 11 inspection areas; West Cumbria College, which has poor retention and achievement; and the Isle of Wight College, which got six poor grades in 11 inspection categories. All had "serious weaknesses" that must be addressed with "utmost urgency", Lady Blackstone said. Some may be considered for mergers or for special support from the Further Education Standards Fund.
David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said he was delighted that the government was celebrating best practice. "We do have some concerns about putting some colleges struggling to succeed under the national spotlight, but we recognise steps the department is taking to help relieve the situation."
Ten colleges, which have achieved at least five top inspection grades, won beacon status this week. Each will get Pounds 50,000 to help spread good practice and will face a lighter inspection process. Some may be asked to help run failing colleges.
The beacon colleges include Lewisham, Park Lane, Knowsley Community, Blackpool and the Fylde, Havering and Bishop Burton and four sixth-form colleges.