Being under the Ofsted spotlight can be an uncomfortable place, says Denise Brown-Sackey, who turns the inspection tables back on the education watchdog.

Are providers fit for purpose — but is Ofsted fit to judge?

Being under the Ofsted spotlight can be an uncomfortable place, says Denise Brown-Sackey, who turns the inspection tables back on the education watchdog.

More than a decade ago, the academic Leslie Rosenthal said: “The efforts required by teaching staff in responding to the demands of the… inspection system are great enough to divert resources from teaching so as to affect pupil achievement in the year of the visit.”

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those who’ve experienced the Ofsted inspection regime first-hand — whether we’re managers, lecturers, support staff or students.

Indeed, a separate study of Hertfordshire students reported a, “tenser relationship with their teachers” ahead of inspection.

Of course, as the Commons Education Select Committee pointed out in its 2010 report on Ofsted, and citing the evidence above, a degree of stress in any form of examination is arguably both inevitable and healthy.

For me, the real issue lies with the reasons for that stress, and — perhaps unsurprisingly for one whose college was inspected this year [going from outstanding to good] — there do seem to be areas for reform.

I was delighted that Ofsted’s visit to Newham validated the education we provide for our 21,000 learners, and that we were deemed to be a high-performing providers.

In light of that, it could seem churlish to slander the new framework under which that visit took place, but I do believe it has serious flaws.

Essentially, the new framework for providers is now the same as that for schools.

But, for me, they are fundamentally different entities and need to be treated in the appropriate manner.

Let me take the example of community cohesion. For this to exist as a judgment in its own right for a small primary school, or even an average-sized secondary school, was arguably excess to requirements.

While many such institutions have valuable regional, national and global partnerships, the essentially local nature of their operation means that community engagement is not a constant leadership focus.

For providers, the opposite is true — the breadth of both our curricula and the geographical areas we serve make that engagement critical to our mission.

There is, in that case, a strong argument for retaining a judgment for community cohesion for FE inspections. At the moment, all that valuable work feels effectively lost in inspection week.

A further problem, as also referenced in MPs’ 2010 investigation, lies with the expertise of inspectors themselves.

Far too few have real and relevant experience of the FE sector — a problem also reflected at the higher echelons of the organisation — and it can happen that those from within the field have preconceptions about institutions which bias their judgment one way or another.

These are difficult problems to solve, although I am glad Ofsted has been recruiting more FE experts recently.

In writing this, I am well aware that the sector should not, and must not, seem over-defensive, particularly in light of some of Ofsted’s own views on us and our standards.

While it may not curry me favour with some colleagues, I recognise some of Ofsted’s concerns — the need for even more robust governance, for example, and to raise standards across our capital city.

But in achieving those goals, I want to work with an inspectorate — the need for which I continue to stand by, on balance — which is on my side, which is properly equipped to monitor FE providers, and which does so by looking at appropriate evidence.

At the moment, just as Ofsted may reasonably feel that our sector is some way from perfect,

I have to throw the same right back at them.