If colleges want to improve, the leadership team must be honest and open about its weaknesses says Matthew Coffey. 

Ofsted’s How Colleges Improve report, published in September, was commissioned by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service to highlight how colleges can build on best practice and ensure the education they are providing is at least good or outstanding.

It found that successful colleges shared the same characteristics which centred on strong leadership and management and a clear vision and direction with genuinely collaborative approaches.

The determination and drive of senior leadership teams in making sure their visions and values became the culture and ethos of their colleges were evident in the colleges that were outstanding or improving quickly.

In outstanding and improving colleges staff at all levels 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.

Good and outstanding colleges were not afraid of self-assessment processes even if they were critical as they understood it was integral to the college’s improvement.

In outstanding colleges internal communication with staff was excellent; great attention to detail was paid to both routine information as well as the dissemination of key critical messages.

Self-assessment included all key processes and areas of work, for example, work subcontracted to other providers. Self-assessment was accurate, evidence-based, involved all staff and brought about improvements.

One of the differences between underperforming colleges and more successful and improving colleges, as seen both during the visits and in the review of reports, was that the latter saw observing teaching and learning as an integral part of the process of improving quality, outcomes and assessment. It was not viewed as an end in itself to satisfy the requirements of Ofsted.

Outstanding colleges had a good reputation with not only staff and learners, but the community more widely, especially where colleges engaged with local employers.

While there was no single explanation as to why some colleges underperformed there were often many interrelated reasons and common features. Often, there was complacency, and lack of ambition, direction and vision from senior staff.

Too often leaders and managers were overly preoccupied with finance or capital buildings projects to the detriment of promoting good teaching and learning or developing the curriculum.

Self-assessment reports in weaker colleges were often over-optimistic”

Self-assessment reports in weaker colleges were often over-optimistic and lacked critical insight which brought about limited improvements.

This was often coupled with a defensive inward-looking approach, where colleges were slow to accept change or act when data showed decline.

In weaker colleges there tended to be a larger proportion of temporary staff. They were often not properly managed, either because internal arrangements for performance management were weak or because lines of accountability for staff employed through external agencies were unclear or absent.

Ofsted has a number of recommendations for both colleges and the government and these mainly focus on promoting the benefits of robust, accurate and open self- assessment in improving quality within the context of local accountability.

The main messages from the report can be summed up quite nicely by the principal of an improving college, who said: “To make progress, colleges, particularly the leadership, management and governors, must be honest and open about the things done badly.”

All in all we found that a defensive and inward-looking approach especially to self-assessment does not serve as a good base for improvement.

Matthew Coffey, Ofsted national director for learning and skills