Merging with another college is certainly not a way to dodge a visit from Ofsted, explains Paul Joyce, in response to FE Week’s criticism of the regulator’s move to suspend routine inspections for at least three years following a merger.

College mergers have become much more commonplace in recent years. With this in mind, and following last week’s opinion piece by FE Week’s esteemed editor (“Ofsted should renege on its merger deal), I thought it might be helpful to clarify our policy on inspecting these newly merged colleges.

Our inspection handbook clearly sets out:

“A newly merged college will normally be inspected as a new provider within three years of the merger… Any newly merged college or other provider deemed as a new provider may receive a monitoring visit to assess risk. Risk concerns arising from this or other sources may lead to an earlier full inspection.”

So what does this mean in practice? Well, “within three years” does not mean that inspection will happen at the three-year point, or even within the third year. A full inspection can take place at any point during that period. In fact, we have just inspected NCG less than 12 months after its merger with Lewisham and Southwark College. And in May this year we inspected East Coast College less than a year after it was formed following a merger between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft Colleges. Inspections taking place relatively quickly after a merger are not unusual – but they are risk-based and proportionate.

As well as carrying out full inspections, Ofsted uses its power to conduct monitoring visits to assess providers and flag any concerns. These visits are used to make sure a provider is on the right track, and where we find a provider is not making sufficient progress, we can bring a full inspection forward. We continue to carry out monitoring visits to newly merged colleges, and before the change to our monitoring policy earlier this year we completed support and challenge visits to a number of newly merged colleges where the merger included a college formerly graded as “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. So rest assured we are monitoring colleges that merge very closely.

Our handbook sets out inspection time frames to help give colleges and other providers an idea of when they might get an inspection. It also serves to reassure students and parents about when their institution might be inspected. But these time frames are indicative and they are deliberately not specific; we monitor providers closely and use all available information to risk-assess when they are in need of inspection.

Ofsted regularly uses its powers to inspect “at any time”. I can promise you now that where we have concerns about a college – newly merged or not – we will do what we always have done, which is to go in and inspect. Merging with another college is certainly not a route to avoiding inspection.