Research in the last edition of FE Week showed how the proportion of new grade three results was up this year versus the same period last year. Jayne Stigger considers what might be behind this rise.

It was reported in FE Week that 33 per cent of the 57 general FE colleges (GFEs), sixth form colleges and independent learning providers (ILPs) inspected and reported on between January 1 and May 5 this year were downgraded to a three or ‘requires improvement’ rating compared to 17 per cent of 64 inspections for the same period last year.

The proportion of new grade one or ‘outstanding’ results fell 3 per cent, with no new grade ones so far this year compared to two in the same period last year, and new grade two or’ good’ ratings as a proportion of inspection results fell from 50 per cent last year to 32 per cent, the proportion of grade fours went from 2 per cent to 9 per cent. So is there a trend in Ofsted results that is a cause for concern?

Ofsted needs an updated and uniform CIF to capture the complexity of colleges and it will now run shorter, more focussed inspections with the expansion of the following areas of provision graded “where appropriate”; 16 to 19 study programmes, 19+ learning programmes, apprenticeships, traineeships, employability, learners in receipt of high needs funding, community learning and 14–16 provision in colleges full-time & part-time.

We must honestly examine the link between inspection outcomes and management input

For this group of college inspections, however, the overriding factor for a college to downgrade appears to be cultural.

The GFEs who went down a grade all underwent recent management change, Mid Kent College (change of principal), Tameside (change of principal), Solihull (new principal), Wigan & Leigh (change of principal) and New College Stamford (change of principal) which would understandably lead to an unsettled atmosphere and contribute to a change of grade.

There were 11 ILPs downgraded, four (37 per cent) of which had never been inspected before, so they were not technically downgraded, just awarded their first grade. Their grades are not truly relevant in this context. The remaining seven (63 per cent) are struggling due to the pressure on funding in terms of overall budgets and that funding rates have not kept pace with inflation.

Previously, ILPs outperformed GFEs and the small numbers who have now fallen to a three are the first victims of the vicious and destructive cuts. We will sadly see more, but it is not caused by Ofsted.

Of the SFCs, amazingly, Bilborough principal Chris Bradford and its governing body admitted they weren’t surprised by their grading, but claimed they had already put in place measures to turn it around. New College Telford has also recently undergone a change of principal, and Strode’s, according to Ofsted, require improvements in teaching and learning and has been slow to implement changes, again a management issue.

Leaving aside the issues of funding which impact us all, we must recognise that while Ofsted will never be ‘perfect’, nor will ‘FE and skills’; I’d prefer a peer-based review, but whatever the method of appraisal, we must honestly examine the link between inspection outcomes and management input.

Let’s look at the results from question two of the Ofsted Better inspection for all consultation on its incoming new CIF. It asked ‘Do you agree or disagree with the proposed ‘effectiveness of leadership and management’ judgement?’

Support for the ‘effectiveness of leadership and management’ judgement was very strong … support was also high among staff working in … the FE and skills sector. Respondents commented that it was right for leadership to be emphasised strongly in the new framework.

As the college inspections in the table demonstrate, change of leadership is destabilising. Colleges must have stable, reliable and outstanding leaders to be successful. Leadership and management are key to the culture of the college, engagement of the staff, ethos in which they work and by definition, how learners achieve.

Rather than taking a shallow look at the data and shouting ‘fix’, we should be focussing on being the best leaders and managers we can, to create the right culture for our staff, learners and success.