Ofsted seems to be heading for a U-turn on a controversial policy that exempts providers rated ‘outstanding’ from routine inspection.
FE Week revealed in November that two colleges – Bridgwater and Taunton College in Somerset, and Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridgeshire – had not been inspected for a decade.
Since then, another college – Cirencester College in Gloucester – has been added to the 10-year list, and 14 other FE institutions are now in their ninth year of non-inspection.
All were graded ‘outstanding’ during their last visits from Ofsted, but significant changes in how the sector is monitored have occurred over the last decade – raising serious questions about the wait.
However, FE Week understands that Ofsted is now looking to change its policy, which currently states providers judged ‘outstanding’ at their most recent inspection are “not normally subject to routine inspection”.
It is understood the policy may change so that ‘outstanding’ providers join the same routine procedure as others, such as being subjected to two-day short inspections the way ‘good’ institutions are, or to give them their own procedure.
If given the go-ahead, the move would be a statement of intent for radical change at the education watchdog by new chief inspector Amanda Spielman (pictured), who took the reins from Sir Michael Wilshaw this month.
A spokesperson for the watchdog, however, said this week that it had “no plans at the moment to change this policy” and noted that it had been the government, not the inspectorate, that created it in the first place.
The previous government introduced the policy in the Education Act 2011, with the aim of allowing Ofsted the best opportunity to “focus its resources on underperforming providers”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said that while ‘outstanding’ providers are exempt from routine inspection, they are still subject to accountability through Ofsted’s risk assessments.
Risk assessments consider factors such as academic performance and student attendance, but there are fears the procedure does not reveal the full truth about all aspects of a provider, such as safeguarding.
FE Week asked Sir Michael about the 10-year gaps at the launch of Ofsted’s annual report last month.
The former chief inspector said: “Where the data shows a college is doing well, we obviously don’t do an inspection. We go into those institutions where the data is not very good, or there are concerns.”
But unions want the policy reviewed, arguing that it is dangerous for providers to go so long without a full inspection.
Malcolm Trobe, the interim general secretary at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Ofsted does have to prioritise what they are doing but 10 years is way too long for them not to have picked up on a reinspection.
“The risk assessment procedure will not necessarily cover everything that is going on within the provider.”
The controversy of Ofsted’s inspection policy will also bring into question whether the ‘outstanding’ grade should be dropped altogether.
Ms Spielman said she would look to scrap the grade during a parliamentary hearing last year but because the government wrote the exemption for outstanding providers into law in 2011, parliament would need to repeal this law before the top grade could be removed.
Mr Trobe said he is hoping Ms Spielman will “open up the debate” on the matter now she is in post.