The fear an Ofsted inspection can strike into the hearts of principals is well-known in FE. But could that be changing under the new way of assessing colleges? Stuart Rimmer explains his experience of the revamped inspection framework and the improvements he sees within it.

“They are coming” — it was a simple statement from the principal on a Thursday morning that needed no further explanation.

The growing reputation of Ofsted’s new Common Inspection Framework (CIF) for being tough, added to conspiracy theories abounding about the downgrading of the sector, made it a nervous time.

So what was the inspection like? Anyone in a senior post within FE is acutely aware of the impact an inspection can have on reputation, stability, job security and the ability to deliver future improvements.

Overall, our experience of the new Ofsted framework was that it felt fair, collaborative and thoroughly focused on teaching and
learning.

This new focus on teaching, learning and assessment meant the range of teaching inspectors saw — including work-based learning provision — combined with the volume of students they manage to speak to, led to there being very few hiding places.

The old potential for entirely ‘stage-managed’ inspections has quite rightly gone.

The focus on success rates as the key performance measure remains strongly in place as the starting point for inspection.

The outcomes for learners is much broader now. The definition of teaching, learning and assessment within the handbook is also wide and varied.

The ‘seven pillars of wisdom’ (see page 45 of the handbook) are considered thoroughly and with equal importance. As a sector we should welcome this.

Leadership and management under the new regime feel entirely different and much better.

Instead of endless files and a schedule of pre-arranged, pre-prepared meetings, the new inspection allows the single question to be put and answered – ‘how does that impact on learners?’

Grandstanding by senior teams and governors on iconic buildings, college finances or their superb networks with the glitterati in the business or the FE sector gets short shrift.

It is much more grounded in solid performance management, self-assessment and improving learner experience and core teaching activities.

Consider in advance how performance management operates at your college”

As a good, small, northern college this was great and it allowed us to demonstrate how we meet our core college values on a daily basis and how we meet our community needs

To fully implement the nuances of the new CIF will take some time and, whereas the preparation for the new inspection regime requires just as much work, the difference is that it needs to be ready well in advance of the dreaded phone call.

There has been much Ofsted bashing over recent months. I would say, regardless of any philosophical viewpoint as to the purpose or effectiveness of the inspection regime, we found the team to be professional and highly-focused with a clear view of what good teaching and learning should look like in a college.

As for the outcome, the inspection team agreed with our self-assessment and we were judged to be a good college.

There are, however, some basic operational things to consider. Watch out for the BI06 form and ensure you have it completed in draft form in advance.

Leaving it until receiving notice of the inspection will be too late. As always be clear on your data, ensure it matches with all the Gateway reports and have validated sources ready — including destinations and value added.

Ensure an honest, rigorous and up-to-date self-assessment report is on the Gateway. It is the starting point for the inspection and a focus for leadership and management.

Plan the internal logistics of base rooms and inspection arrangements.

At college level, curriculum and service areas should have a short action plan of what to do once the call is received. The two days — plus the weekend — go very quickly.

Consider in advance how performance management operates at your college.

Have a well-briefed, well-prepared nominee. This role is even more important in the new framework to ensure the inspection team see the best the college has to offer and to ensure the inspection evidence base is representative.

Communicate with your students, parents, governors and employers and have these mechanisms drafted in advance. And finally, ensure college timetables are up-to-date, including work-based learning visits.

Stuart Rimmer is director of quality and enterprise at Lancaster and Morecambe College