The government needs to establish a set of FE-centric measures to get a better idea of what it wants from the sector. Ali Hadawi has a few suggestions

Two new Ofsted reports out this week have raised the proportion of colleges now rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ to almost three quarters. There is no denying that this is great news for the colleges themselves, and it may even say something about the teaching and learning happening at them – but how much does it signal success for the FE sector as a whole? Is Ofsted really measuring what we think it’s measuring?

If we’re honest, the government currently has no viable means of measuring what it actually wants the FE sector to do.

There are a number of proxy measures, however. These centre on the quality of teaching and learning, outcomes for learners, success on courses, leadership and management, financial health and so on. However, they do not offer a robust measure of the real impact of FE.

The government currently has no viable means of measuring what it actually wants the FE sector to do

They are used for two reasons: the absence of a truly clear mission for the sector, which would normally drive the assessment of impact, and the perceived difficulty in assessing impact.

The proof that these proxies lack relevance is evident from the discourse around the success or otherwise of the sector.

For example, ministers never challenge us to deliver a set number of courses or qualifications, or on our inspection outcomes, or on the level of spend from our grants. Instead, ministers invariably quote CBI statistics on “skills shortages” and criticise FE for not improving, despite the fact that colleges have never actually been asked to close the skills gap or beat shortages.

While FE inspectors are certainly passionate about quality and improvement, this all begs the question: could Ofsted be measuring the wrong thing?

It is not in the current frameworks for any of the regulation agencies to assess the local or regional skills gap or shortage before they inspect a college. For example, it is not inconceivable that Ofsted could use the skills shortage in a certain region as part of its evidence base when judging the relevance of a specific college; after all, the data is publicly available and regularly updated.

The government needs a dependable metric to enable it to decide on the role of FE, levels of funding and how to use the sector to affect the economy, social cohesion, productivity and other areas of its influence.

Developing an alternative metric to quantify the effectiveness of the FE sector is a complex endeavour. It would require significant research into impact measures and how relevant, transferable across sectors, repeatable, consistent and meaningful they are to those who work within FE and for the stakeholders.

Could Ofsted be measuring the wrong thing?

One possibility is to explore a non-financial and intangible value metric in which social value is aligned to the sector’s mission. Such a measure might challenge the need for the existence of regulatory bodies such as Ofsted in the way they operate now.

The metric would need to offer a dependable measure of how FE affects individuals, communities, businesses, the economy, crime levels, reoffending levels, mental health issues, citizenship, progression into employment, progression into HE, social mobility, meeting government agendas on the economy and employment, skills shortages and gaps in the economy, economic activity, economic competitiveness and productivity, to name a few.

With a robust measure of social value and impact, the government would not need to issue a white paper every time a response to a localised issue is required.

For example, a certain area needs to address skills shortages or focus on community cohesion, all that would be needed is a change in the weighting of the various components of such a measure.

This would allow development of an FE mission which can be utilised nationally, regionally and locally.

This is not about rushing in yet more change for the sector – it’s about starting a genuine discussion about our purpose and values, and identifying the right metrics and outcomes to meaningfully reflect these.

Ali Hadawi is Principal and Chief Executive of Central Bedfordshire College