You need to change the culture of your college if you want to move from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ says Tony Lau-Walker. And you don’t do this by first looking at the common inspection framework. 

When we were asked how Eastleigh College achieved its outstanding status this year the reply reflected Mo Farah’s comment after winning Olympic gold this summer — “it was a long journey and required constant graft and hard work”.

Moving from satisfactory or even inadequate to good is relatively easy for a determined senior management team, because it is about cutting out obvious dysfunctional performances within the curriculum and across the college.

Moving from good to outstanding, however, is a step change in both performance and expectations. Staff and managers need to want to do it and to believe that they can be outstanding. They need to change the culture of the organisation.

It is not about stopping doing things that are ineffective, but about doing things that stretch boundaries and innovate. It will engage staff in a dialogue about teaching and learning, and will give ownership of standards and targets at the lowest levels.

Eastleigh College’s approach to inspection was, initially, not to look at the common inspection framework (CIF), but to be clear about what was needed to make our efforts successful for our learners. We were critical of our efforts to meet learners’ needs, however harsh this meant our internal self-assessment grades were for particular teams.

Only when we were clear what worked for our learners did we seek to understand what the inspectors were looking for and how it fitted with what we did best.

Managing an inspection starts with clarifying the interpretation of the CIF and challenging staff with these standards — from governors through to classroom assistants. Our commitment was to critically affirm what we did well and build on it.

We acted on three pieces of advice. First, do not operate at an aggregated level with results and performance. While it is reassuring as an overview, it masks the things that need addressing. Second, action everything that needs addressing and ensure everything is followed up. Record these actions and, most importantly, their impact. Third, when observing lessons, focus on learning and learner engagement — this should inform the grade, even if it gives a less flattering grade profile to the college.

By understanding what inspectors were looking for and matching what we did to the framework of the CIF, rather than to the rumours and myths circulating in the sector, the inspection went smoothly.

Eastleigh volunteered to have a short-notice inspection as part of Ofsted’s pilot because we were confident, following our self-assessment, that we could evidence all aspects the CIF would examine. The framework has now been streamlined, inspectors call it flat-lining — the absence of a spiky profile — which may enable colleges that have the key things right to achieve ‘outstanding’.

The grade of teaching and learning has become more important, a natural progression for an organisation now seeking to raise the importance of learner experience  — hence the new Learner View website.

The criteria is more aspirational and more focused than before, placing emphasis on engagement, high expectations and motivation, which depicts a demanding classroom experience and committed teachers.

Outcomes for learners remains the lead criteria for effectiveness, but is now treated as a hygiene element, inevitability so as success rates rise and the sector is seen to be competent at achieving success with the learners that it serves.

Merging equality and diversity into both teaching and learning, and management, along with safeguarding, enables a more realistic assessment of these elements.

To prepare for the new CIF, colleges need to concentrate on what is right for their learners — the right learners on the right courses with the right support.

With a major investment of time and effort in staff development and a hypercritical self-assessment, the rest will follow and standards will rise.

Tony Lau-Walker is chief executive of Eastleigh College