The decrease in colleges’ Ofsted grades has been well documented in FE Week. In 2009-2010, about a quarter of colleges that were previously judged to be good or outstanding saw their grade decline.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, has been vocal in his concerns, claiming that colleges were “using the complexity of FE as a cover for not doing what they should be doing, which is monitoring the quality of teaching”.

If we are to comprehend and reverse this trend, we must understand what is happening. It is too early to be definitive. Some say that Ofsted inspections are now strongly focused on teaching and learning, and this will be even more true with the new Common Inspection Framework.

Therefore, it could be argued that if a college broadens its horizons too far from that focus, it could diminish its ability of attaining a good grade.

Risk analysis is a factor that many have raised. Ofsted focus their inspections on the basis of risk, with colleges in the lower bands, or where analysis of data suggests there is an issue, being more likely to be inspected – and more likely to gain a lower result than the true average of all colleges.

Another theory is that there may be a tendency for a college’s self assessment to be optimistic rather than realistic, which can result in it failing to identify its weaknesses and so underperform during inspection. Over-confident self assessment could also indicate inadequate management.

This is the speculation. But we do know that when provided with the support to develop impartial self assessment and to improve teaching and learning, colleges can improve their learner success rates and inspection grades.

The colleges who have received help from LSIS to avoid or resolve issues of concern have, on average, improved by one grade at their next inspection.

There is also a strong demonstrable link between working with LSIS and success rates.
On May 30, Ofsted announced its new inspection regime: from September this year, providers will need to demonstrate outstanding teaching, learning and assessment to be judged outstanding overall (note, not all teaching must be outstanding).

Under a normal distribution only a small number of colleges will achieve an outstanding grade at any one time”

This reinforces the message to colleges that they need to focus on the learner experience and success. Inevitably, under a normal distribution only a small number of colleges will achieve an outstanding grade at any one time.

In March, LSIS set out its three priorities for 2012-2013 in Refining our Strategy 2012 to 2015: to drive forward outstanding teaching and learning, to forge excellent leadership and management, and to move with powerful intervention to avoid and resolve cases of failure. LSIS offers help to colleges in these vital areas to help them to improve and, in doing so, serve their learners best – and attain good inspection results.

As to the third priority – “to move with powerful intervention” – LSIS offers services pre- and post-inspection; the new LSIS Escalated Intervention Service is being set up for those found inadequate twice in a row (under the new Ofsted rules, the number of times a provider can be judged as “requires improvement” will usually be limited to twice).

There does not appear to be a single explanation for the decline in Ofsted grades. However, the need for a strong focus on teaching and learning is a recurrent theme. It will be interesting to see the impact, positive or negative, of the new regime.

LSIS will continue to be guided by the sector to provide what it requires, whether it is help to improve Ofsted grades, striving for excellence in teaching and learning, or supporting strong college leadership, management and governance.

Rob Wye, chief executive,
Learning and Skills Improvement Service