DfE wants Ofsted to inspect more 'outstanding' colleges – but won’t drop exemption

The Department for Education has told Ofsted to reinspect more ‘outstanding’ colleges and schools, but stopped short of dropping the controversial exemption.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, has asked the watchdog to review its risk assessment arrangements and ensure it inspects 10 per cent of grade one schools and colleges over the coming year.

However, he said the exemption itself will remain in place, and has not indicated whether Ofsted will get more money to help it meet his demands.

The government has come under intense pressure from Ofsted and others to remove the exemption in recent months.

Under the exemption, previously ‘outstanding’-rated colleges are not inspected apart from in rare circumstances, for example, where concerns are raised about safeguarding or data suggests worsening student outcomes.

However, as revealed in an FE Week investigation two years ago and subsequent National Audit Office report earlier this year, the exemption has led to many colleges and hundreds of schools being ignored by inspectors for over a decade.

In October, chief inspector Amanda Spielman warned the public accounts committee that the exemption leaves the inspectorate with “real blind spots as to the quality of education and safeguarding” in these schools and colleges.

“The outstanding grade should be a symbol that a school is a beacon of excellence. If we are to maintain its reputation, the exemption from inspection for outstanding schools must be removed and Ofsted fully resourced to inspect those schools,” she wrote to the committee.

In a letter to Ms Spielman, published today, MrGibb said it was “right that we take stock of the policy and ensure that Ofsted is able to provide appropriate assurances about these providers”.

“This is a recognition that the current arrangements are identifying too few schools and colleges to give parents the assurances they need,” he wrote. “This is also in line with the expectation agreed in Parliament when the exemption was introduced.”

The letter said this 10 per cent should include schools and colleges where risk assessments have indicated possible “concerns”, but can also include a selection of institutions were “best practice is likely to be found”.

“I look forward to continuing our constructive discussions on this important topic, and reviewing the impact of the changes to your risk assessment process,” Mr Gibb added.

A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “We welcome the minister’s letter and the recognition that it is a good time to take stock of the government’s exemption policy. 

“We will continue our discussions with the DfE about the fact that outstanding schools are exempt from routine inspection and that we believe this currently undermines the value for parents of the top inspection grade.”

FE Week  reported last month that six of the highest-rated sixth-form colleges have not been inspected in over a decade. Hills Road Sixth Form College, Circencester College, Woodhouse College, Carmel College, Richard Huish College and Winstanley College are all still rated as ‘outstanding’, despite the fact they were all last inspected between the November 2006 and October 2007.

Our analysis also found that full inspections plunged by a third in just one year.