The best further education colleges could be commissioned to take over the management of failing colleges under a new interventionist standards drive.
Launching the initiative, lifelong learning minister George Mudie told the Further Education Funding Council annual conference this week that the government would take "swift interventionist action" against any college "letting the community down" with poor retention and achievement, mismanagement and bad governance.
The best colleges would become beacons and the worst face takeover or closure. He said he would offer no apologies for a new "uncompromising stance". There would be "no more excuses".
The minister did not name any failing colleges, but referred to critical inspection reports from the FEFC. Such reports, he said, "make shocking reading".
Mr Mudie also backed calls for a fundamental review of further education by lecturers' union Natfhe. Paul Mackney, Natfhe general secretary, said a commission, with an independent chairman and external members, should look at ways of improving students' retention and achievement and the morale and pay and conditions of staff.
Mr Mudie said the government had offered carrots as well as sticks: it had put money on the table - a Pounds 115 million standards fund over two years from April - to help failing colleges recover and to reward excellence and disseminate good practice.
FEFC chief inspector Jim Donaldson outlined how the new standards fund would work. First, cash would be targeted at failing colleges and a FEFC quality improvement unit would intervene to approve and monitor action plans. Some funding, he said, would be available for training principals and lecturers, and cash would be available to spread good practice.
Mr Donaldson said that excellent colleges would be given Pounds 50,000 each to disseminate good practice. "Accredited and beacon colleges might well collaborate with colleges causing concern and be commissioned through the standards fund to provide assistance and support in areas such as management information systems, financial management and the like."
In 2000-01, an achievement fund will be introduced to reward improved levels of achievement.
David Melville, FEFC chief executive, warned that colleges may be "overwhelmed" by the government's expectations and its demands to increase the sector by nearly one-fifth and to improve standards while widening participation.
George Mudie, page 14