Unrealistic self-assessments with little or no critical insight, plus unexpected job cuts, show up time and again among poorly performing colleges, according to a new Ofsted report.

How Colleges Improve also warned colleges about the dangers of paying too much attention to building projects and mergers.

The report, which was released last week, also highlighted inconsistent tracking of learner progress, financial instability and defensive, inward-looking colleges being slow to accept change or to act when data showed decline.

Weaker colleges, the report added, often had a high proportion of temporary staff who were not properly managed.

In outstanding and improving colleges, staff were more willing to accept change and could easily describe what their college stood for”

And, mirroring the “Deptford not Delhi” fears of chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw that featured in FE Week a fortnight ago, there were also question marks over colleges’ “quest for new and fresh business, especially, abroad…to the detriment of current learners”.

But the report, commissioned by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) and Ofsted, also listed where colleges had got it right.

Successful colleges, it said, had strong governance and management as well as a clear vision and direction. And good and outstanding colleges were not afraid of the self-assessment process — even if it was self-critical.

Ofsted’s national director for learning and skills, Matthew Coffey, said: “Successful colleges always had strong leadership and management and the importance of this cannot be underestimated.

“All the elements of this report are inextricably linked to the actions and behaviours of leaders and managers and the example they set.

“In outstanding and improving colleges, staff were more willing to accept change and could easily describe what their college stood for. As a result, leadership teams were better placed to act decisively to tackle underperformance and secure improvement.”

Rob Wye, LSIS chief executive, said: “This report confirms that the importance of outstanding leadership and management, underpinned by informed governance, cannot be underestimated.

“It is also clear that robust and honest self-review and reflection is a vital ingredient of any provider’s improvement journey. The evidence in this report confirms what many will have thought for a long time — that the best colleges are those where the teaching, learning and assessment delivers excellent results that match the needs of learners, employers and the local community.”

The report was welcomed by the Association of School and College Leaders. Its colleges spokesperson, Stephan Jungnitz, said: “I’m pleased the report recognises the pivotal role of college leaders in driving forward institutional success, as well as the complex and demanding range of areas they have to deal with, from buildings and finance to teaching and learning.

“As we well know, each college is unique and the road to success will be different for each — there is no magic formula. Having said that, the insights in the report will be useful to college leaders.

“For many, it will reinforce what they instinctively already know about improving their institutions.”