Failing colleges that merge 'can expect' Ofsted monitoring visit

Grade three or four colleges that merge can expect to receive a monitoring visit before their first full inspection, Ofsted has confirmed today.

The clarification, which applies to mergers from January 2018 onwards, follows criticism that poor-performing colleges had been able to get away without any Ofsted scrutiny following a merger.

According to the FE and skills inspection handbook, updated today, a “newly merged college will normally receive a monitoring visit before the first full inspection if the overall effectiveness grade of one or more of the predecessor colleges was requires improvement or inadequate”.

The exceptions to this are where “the merged college has already received a support and challenge visit” or the merger “took place before January 2018”.

The move follows criticism from education select committee chair Robert Halfon, who accused Ofsted in August of allowing mergers to be an excuse for turning a blind eye to failure.

He demanded the inspectorate “monitor all failing providers” regardless of their merger status, after an FE Week investigation uncovered an example of an institution formed through the merger of a double grade four and a grade three college that had yet to receive a monitoring visit a year post-merger.

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.

A monitoring visit could be carried out at “any reasonable time” to a college post-merger, according to the handbook – but in practice this hasn’t happened.

FE Week’s investigation found that just two colleges had received a monitoring visit following a merger. One of these involved two colleges previously rated ‘requires improvement’, which the other involved a grade four and a grade two college.

Colleges that could expect to receive a monitoring visit under the new policy include Trafford College, which merged with Stockport College in April – just a month after Stockport was rated ‘inadequate’ for the third time in five years.

Likewise, New City College, which merged with grade three Epping Forest College in August, will fall under the scope of the new policy, as will Stockton Riverside College, which joined forces with grade four Redcar and Cleveland College in the same month.

In an expert piece for FE Week in July, 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”.