Nick Linford considers the extent to which poor college performance can be blamed on government interference and a lack of investment.

If Ofsted inspection reports are to be believed, we should be very concerned that the college sector has been going downhill for three years in a row.

This week we’ve crunched the figures and revealed that its annual report is expected to say next month that the proportion of ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ general further education colleges will fall to 69 per cent.

That means nearly a third of colleges are classed as failing their learners, so what’s going on?

Constant reform

For several years now Ofsted has warned of the policy complexity faced by colleges, saying in its annual report last year: “Area reviews, reforms to apprenticeships and the ‘Post-16 skills plan’, following Lord Sainsbury’s review, are all very significant projects that will see fundamental changes made to the further education and skills system. With both performance concerns and ongoing large-scale changes to the system, again this year many general FE colleges face a period of continuing turmoil.”

Since then, the new chief inspector Amanda Spielman hasn’t shied away from highlighting the challenges colleges face from wide scale reforms. Answering questions from MPs on the education select committee last week, she said that compared to schools, colleges have “a much more complex job to make sure that there is the right pathway for everybody, with changes in qualifications, programmes of study, apprenticeships and reforms in practically all areas, keeping your handle around seeing people through the existing and introducing the new ones. There is no question – it is an enormous amount of work for colleges at the moment and a big challenge.”

And while “we’ve never known so much change” is an often repeated sentence at FE conferences, it is likely to be heard more than ever at the AoC conference next week.

So, the Department for Education and five skills ministers in as many years perhaps need to recognise that constant reform of rules and policies is translating into poor provision for learners.

Funding inequality

As a former college curriculum planner myself, I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of financial resource makes it impossible to deliver a high quality curriculum.

And this resource is being squeezed for all colleges, with 16-to-18 funding rates stuck at 2013 levels despite ever-rising costs.

As a result, and as a recent survey conducted by the Sixth Form College Association has corroborated, many colleges have been forced to increase class sizes, reduce teaching time and cut student support.

This may help balance the books, but it would be very surprising if Ofsted hadn’t found the learner experience was starting to deteriorate.

Colleges have the biggest funding challenge

The chief inspector seems all too aware of the potential significance of funding levels on quality, telling the education select committee that “colleges have the biggest funding challenge”.

And when asked by one committee member about the “consequences of the funding inequality post-16”, she said “we see quite disappointing outcomes at inspection for FE, compared with pre-16”, and would not rule out funding inequality from being to blame for this “correlation”.

Putting it bluntly, the college sector is being left behind when it comes to resources, and no amount of T-level planning will improve the outcomes for learners today.

The budget at the end of the month is an opportunity for the chancellor to recognise that colleges are at a tipping point.

In practical terms, and as a minimum, money should be found to increase the 16-to-18 per-pupil funding rates by £200, as the Support Our Sixth-formers (SOS) campaign wants.

FE Week has officially joined the campaign, joining big beasts like AoC, ACSL, SFCA and NUS, because every year that the funding rate goes unchanged represents ever deeper real-terms cuts.

And these disappointing Ofsted outcomes increasingly suggest the sector has reached that tipping point.

All the evidence points to a simple fact: additional investment in colleges is long overdue and desperately needed, now.

Nick Linford is the editor of FE Week