Phil Hatton reviews the Ofsted 2014/15 annual report and pinpoints as key its mention of how funding issues are affecting quality.

Reading the learning and skills section of the Chief Inspector’s annual brought few surprises for those who have been monitoring inspections throughout last year.

However, the picture painted of being ‘above’ or ‘below’ the line of being good or better made difficult reading.

Being a principal or leader of any learning and skills provider is becoming an increasingly demanding and difficult task, as reflected by Sir Michael.

Ofsted has recognised that the declining budgets to run our sector are so severe that they are contributing negatively in their impact on quality

At least Ofsted has recognised that declining budgets to run our sector are so severe they are contributing negatively in their impact on quality.

The report is a key one in that it is also brings to an end the last Common Inspection Framework (Cif) after a relatively short three years.

Sadly, a substantial chunk of the sector did not get the chance to be evaluated against that Cif, which put more emphasis on developing the English and maths skills of learners, even if they have a grade C or above in their previous GCSE results.

It has been a real game-changer, as a key part of both study programmes and apprenticeships, contributing to ever declining overall and timely success rates for the latter.

Sir Michael likes to headline what the sector looks like by quoting what providers look like at their most recent inspection, giving a falsely high and reassuring picture of learners attending ‘good or better’ providers.

For example, general FE colleges (GFEs) are headlined as having dropped from 79 per cent to 77 per cent for the gradings, while in reality for the 48 colleges inspected only 35 per cent achieved them.

Rather oddly, Sir Michael claims that ‘what differentiates the colleges that succeeded from those that are in decline is the calibre of the leadership and management’, yet inspections found leadership and management to be good or better in 44 per cent of GFEs.

Ofsted has put more emphasis on leadership in the new Cif, including governance, by placing the judgement before that of teaching and learning and increasing the inspection focus on it.

Good or better for outcomes in GFEs was only 27 per cent while for teaching and learning 40 per cent. The last year saw an increased focus on linking curriculum development to local and national priorities.

It is good that Ofsted has recognised the prior attainment of learners in GFEs is much lower than in school sixth forms and sixth form colleges, with prior attainment for those elusive GCSEs in English and maths also being lower.

Hopefully, this will be taken into account more when making judgements under the new Cif. The loss of some 270,000 mainly 25+ learners is also acknowledged as a consequence of funding.

The report continues the Ofsted rhetoric when assessing the performance of independent learning providers that only certain types of apprenticeship are worthy of the name.

While there is some substance that there is a need to get equality in levels of apprenticeship right (NVQs at level two vary too much in content and difficulty) it is not the fault of the providers that there are more places with employers who want customer service than there are in aeronautical engineering.

Oddly, comments around weak subcontracting performance are made around small providers when it is a feature of parts of the entire sector including colleges and community learning. Little mention is made of traineeships save to say they appeared to have little success in fulfilling their primary role of being a stepping stone into apprenticeships.

This is a disappointing oversight as it is an area that is being pushed by local enterprise partnerships as a possible stepping stone. Ofsted needs to be giving government a firmer steer on the success, or not, of the value to young people of the current traineeship model.

In summary, Sir Michael has at last stated what those of us with lifetimes in the sector have always known, that the inequalities in funding impact on what we can do with our learners.