Colleges break ranks and praise Ofsted

Inspectors this week received praise from two of England’s largest colleges, despite new data confirming a sharp rise in the number of institutions receiving poor grades.

The principals of South Thames College, in south west London, and Leeds City College said they had been impressed with the fairness of recent inspection visits in which both received “good” overall verdicts.

Both colleges, which educate many disadvantaged students, said they had been concerned that inspectors would pre-judge them based on achievement data, as Ofsted under new chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw pushes a tough “no excuses” culture. Their fears had proved unfounded.

Sue Rimmer, principal of South Thames College, which was inspected in May, told FE Week: “Going into the inspection, we did have some concerns because of the things that we had heard, including particularly the rumours that the inspection result was more or less set before they walked through the door because of an overt reliance on raw data.

“But our experience was very positive. The inspectors were taking into account their personal judgment. They certainly talked to the students a lot – and one of the significant things for us was that there was a key focus on what they saw in the classroom.”

Peter Roberts, principal of Leeds City College, which was also inspected in May, agreed. He said: “The inspectors never lost the focus on teaching and learning and the impact on the students, which no one would argue with.”
The two colleges said they had both been fortunate to have had experienced inspection teams.

However, their “good” verdicts appear to have been achieved in the face of an inspection regime which, new evidence suggests, is getting tougher even before the advent of a new framework next term.
Data compiled by the Association of Colleges (AoC), shown to FE Week, reveals that the proportion of colleges judged outstanding halved between September 2011 to March 2012 compared with the previous year, while the percentage graded inadequate leapt seven-fold.

In the year to September 2011, five colleges, or 7 per cent of those inspected, were found outstanding, compared with only 3 per cent (one college) in the following six months. Some 4 per cent (three colleges) were inadequate in September 2011 to September 2012, compared with 29 per cent (nine colleges) in the period to March this year.

Lesley Davies, the AoC’s deputy chief executive, said: “Some of our member colleges have been disappointed in their inspection results over the past few months. Anecdotally, our members are reporting that the inspections have been inconsistent and there has been a lack of transparency about the process.”

Mr Roberts said the 20-inspector team had managed to get its head around the complexity of an organisation operating on seven sites with 1,200 staff. He added, however, that Leeds City College, which was found to be a “good college with good capacity for improvement” knew it was still on an improvement journey.

Ms Rimmer said there were still areas of concern around Ofsted, including the “punitive” language of “requires improvement” being introduced to replace the satisfactory grade for the new inspection framework starting in September.

She was also concerned that inspectors may now over-emphasise particular performance management arrangements in colleges, when their main focus should be the student experience, and that many experienced Her Majesty’s Inspectors may be nearing retirement.

She said: “For us, the experience in the core inspection team was very noticeable; that they had been HMIs and were drawing on a lot of experience, and they are getting to the stage where they are approaching retirement.
“If new inspectors are coming in who do not have that experience and understanding, we could be in trouble.”