Ofsted criticised for allowing college mergers to be excuse for turning a blind eye to failure

The chair of the influential education select committee has called on Ofsted to “learn the lessons” from Learndirect, after an FE Week investigation found failing colleges that still hadn’t been visited by the education watchdog a year after they merged.

Mid-Cheshire College, rated ‘inadequate’ for the second time in a row in May 2017, merged with grade three Warrington Collegiate in August, to form Warrington and Vale Royal College.

But the college has yet to receive even a follow-up monitoring visit, thanks to Ofsted’s policy of giving newly merged colleges up to three years before they’re inspected.

The revelation prompted Robert Halfon (pictured above) to demand the inspectorate “monitor all failing providers” regardless of their merger status.

“It’s absolutely critical that Ofsted learn the lessons from the Learndirect debacle and subsequent National Audit Office enquiry and Public Accounts Committee recommendations around oversight,” he urged.

The PAC’s inquiry into the monitoring, inspection and funding of Learndirect – rated ‘inadequate’ last year and subsequently given special treatment by the government – “rightly criticised Ofsted for delaying an inspection due to potential ownership change”, Mr Halfon said.

“It seems the same is happening with college mergers.”

“No failing college should be able to put off or avoid regular monitoring visits and inspection simply because they’ve merged,” he said.

Ofsted’s normal policy is to visit providers rated ‘inadequate’ on at least three occasions and publish monitoring reports prior to a re-inspection within 15 months of the last full inspection report.

But following the area reviews of post-16 education and training, which ended in March last year, newly-merged colleges are now given up to three years before they receive a full inspection.

An Ofsted spokesperson said it “can of course inspect sooner if our risk assessment throws up any concerns”, but wouldn’t say why it hadn’t monitored Warrington and Vale Royal College.

“Ofsted regional directors have the power to inspect at any time, whether a college is newly merged or not. But it would be inappropriate to comment on the timing of any inspections or monitoring visits, since they are carried out at short notice,” he added.

The college itself cited the Ofsted policy to explain why it hadn’t been visited following last year’s merger – although it did say it expected a visit “imminently”.

In a recent expert piece for FE Week, the education watchdog’s deputy director for FE, Paul Joyce, insisted that “merging with another college is certainly not a route to avoiding inspection” and that “we are monitoring colleges that merge very closely”.

The PAC’s report on Learndirect, published in March, criticised Ofsted for delaying its inspection of the nation’s biggest FE provider after it claimed it was negotiating the sale of its apprenticeship business.

That policy “risks putting providers’ business interests ahead of learners’ interests”, the report said, and recommended the inspectorate introduce a new “specific deferral policy for commercial providers, to ensure that learners’ interests always take priority over the pursuit of profit”.