The real college was judged says Principal Richard Atkins, not one that had spent three weeks preparing. 

We were keen to get a health check from Ofsted. Exeter College had last been inspected in 2008 and rated as good, but we had received a Notice to Improve (NtI) for learner success rates.

Having reacted quickly and decisively to the NtI, we then self-assessed as outstanding in 2009/10 and 2010/11. So, after consulting staff and governors, we agreed to put ourselves forward as a pilot for the new common inspection framework (CIF).

We had heard nothing by February this year and assumed that we were not to be included.

I then received a call asking if we would be a “no-notice” pilot on condition that I told no one, including the staff and governors. I agreed.

On Monday, March 12, I was telephoned by an Ofsted team who were on a train due in Exeter within 30 minutes to start a full unannounced inspection. I told all staff by email and our 21-day plan became a 21-minute plan.

The role of the internal nominee was crucial, and much more demanding than for an inspection with three weeks’ notice.  We ended up with three people — deputy principal, assistant principal and head of quality — working together as our internal nominee team. They set up a temporary base room for inspectors in a senior manager’s office.

Exeter College is a large provider of apprenticeships so employer visits and work-based assessment observations had to be organised quickly. Employers were supportive and flexible. Staff responded brilliantly too. By noon, teaching observations had started and 90 minutes later we had achieved our first grade one.

I told all staff by email and our 21-day plan became a 21-minute plan”

In all, the inspectors carried out more than 60 graded observations, completed numerous learning walks and observed many other student activities and interactions. There were far fewer meetings with managers and staff — about 10 in total.

The outcomes from the inspection were fantastic for everyone at Exeter. At the feedback session with me and our chair on the Friday, we were rated outstanding for teaching and learning, learners’ outcomes and leadership and management. We were all delighted and shared the news  with students, parents, employers and stakeholders.

Inevitably, having been the first no-notice inspection, we have subsequently received considerable interest from colleges across England.  We have also had time to reflect. There are many positives: Ofsted inspected and judged the real Exeter College, not the one that had spent three weeks preparing for a production, and teaching and support staff overwhelmingly preferred it to an inspection with three weeks’ notice

The focus on teaching, learning and assessment in the new CIF also suits us and reflects our own focus over recent years: there were far fewer meetings with managers and staff — four in total. Our best advocates were our students; their feedback was critical to our success.

I believed that no-notice should be replaced by short notice inspections, and this has happened. And inspectors will need to be flexible in their approach to limited notice inspections, especially with regard to base rooms, availability of students and staff and employer visits.

We offered this and other feedback to Ofsted after the pilot; several points that we raised have been incorporated in the new approach to inspecting colleges.

For me, as a long-standing principal, the whole process confirmed my view that inspections can be a useful and helpful part of a college’s quality improvement toolkit, provided that all sides approach the week in a positive frame of mind, with the will to learn.

Richard Atkins is principal of
Exeter College