Ofsted’s annual report may make uncomfortable reading for colleges, but counterbalance and context are needed, says
Joy Mercer

Ofsted’s annual report can make for uncomfortable reading for those working in and with colleges.

This is not least because the methodology of planning inspections is so heavily weighted by risk.

The report itself says: “The timing of inspection of learning and skills providers, like schools, is determined significantly by risk assessment. Over a third of all the learning and skills providers inspected in 2011/12 were identified on this basis, and this figure was higher for colleges.”

While the report is tempered by recognition of the significant pressures that colleges face, plus funding incentives that can lead to behaviours that Ofsted effectively penalises, counterbalance and context is required.

In terms of employment outcomes, Ofsted’s Skills for Employability report this year showed that colleges significantly outperformed the government’s own Work Programme.

According to Ofsted, colleges successfully placed 19 per cent of participants in work and as many as 27 per cent from bespoke programmes, where the Work Programme managed a rate of less than 4 per cent in its first year.

Colleges invest a great deal of time and resources helping students who have left school with poor grades in maths and English to improve their marks so that they can go on to further study or start work.

Almost 150,000 16 to 18-year-olds study at pre-GCSE level in colleges, some of whom only just missed the required C grade.  Some get their English and maths GCSEs swiftly, but most have to go back to basics and need a lot of help and encouragement to gain their qualifications in incremental stages.

The report poses some significant challenges for the FE system as a whole.”

It is a fallacy to imagine that 11 years of under-achievement can be fixed in two years at a college.

Risk assessment and context aside, there can be no doubt that the report poses significant challenges to the sector.

Ofsted is pushing for quicker and more marked improvement, in particular for more progress in teaching and learning, and for the sector to rise to the huge challenge of youth unemployment.

In censuring providers for “not focusing enough on measuring the true impact of provision” and leaders for needing to “focus more on the usefulness of qualifications”, the report poses some significant challenges for the FE system as a whole. But colleges are limited in how effectively they can measure impact because they cannot track the progress of alumni beyond a short time span. To do this they need government help.

The implicit criticism of success rates also raises systemic questions — we are interested to discuss how college performance might be better reflected in a wider basket of measures, but as our chief executive Martin Doel said in our response to the report: “If the goalposts are being shifted by Ofsted, we at least need to know the rules of the new game.”

Even before those goalposts move, the state of play is not always clear.

We are concerned that the paucity of data in some inspection reports fails to give those colleges the information needed to understand how to improve.  Nor will these types of reports best serve the needs of parents, employers, school careers advisers and potential students.

We find it baffling that no college has received overall outstanding for teaching and learning, and want to understand what the statistical basis is for such judgments. These reports do not allow for this level of analysis.

We have further concerns about the relevant experience of some inspectors and that some inspections do not give a true reflection of the whole of a college’s provision.

However, we do recognise that when criticism comes it must be digested, understood and ultimately acted upon.

The challenge for colleges, Ofsted and ourselves is how to use inspection to best serve the needs of students and the communities in which they live.

Joy Mercer is the Association of
College’s policy director