The Further Education Funding Council has invited high-performing colleges to apply for a special status that would lessen the burden of regular quality inspections and reward them as role models.
The FEFC this week issued guidelines inviting colleges to seek accredited status. Accreditation will give colleges a six-year, light-touch inspection cycle rather than the four-year regime, and cash will be allocated to spread good practice.
The move is part of a quality-improvement drive that will allow the FEFC to focus resources and time on the 10 per cent of "failing colleges" and reward excellence.
Accredited colleges will have to show a good previous record of management. They will have to meet five criteria, based primarily on student retention and achievement. Colleges will judge themselves against benchmarks before applying. Early estimates suggest that only about 20 per cent of the sector will gain accreditation.
The factor that is likely to trouble most applicants is that colleges will be expected to prove the rigour of their self-assessment systems. But the annual report by FEFC chief inspector Jim Donaldson last month warned that colleges were being over-generous.
One college in three had overestimated the quality of its governance, and a quarter had down-played weaknesses in management, Mr Donaldson reported.
"The requirements for achieving accreditation aim to build on the practical measures that colleges should take in order to build on improving their performance and quality of provision," Mr Donaldson said.
"Colleges that achieve accredited status," he said, "will have to ensure that they are aiming long-term and that they will continue to justify their accredited status."
The FEFC has invited colleges to contact its inspectors. They will be expected to draft an accreditation plan in consultation with the council.
The first accredited colleges should be announced in the spring.