From funding problems to T-levels and the apprenticeship levy, Ofsted seems to have a good handle on the main challenges for further education, says David Hughes

It was nice knowing, as I travelled to the annual presentation from the chief inspector of Ofsted, that I was going to hear reasoned, calm and evidence-based views on quality and improvement in education. And that’s what we got this year from Amanda Spielman, who has a great knack of setting out very clear, stark statements based on evidence, which tend to cut through all sorts of sacred cows and sensitivities.

Now, it’s not been a bad year for colleges in terms of the improving the picture on quality. Today’s annual state of the nation report from Ofsted revealed that 76% of further education colleges are rated at least good, a better picture than last year and rising fast.

It comes as no surprise because, despite clear evidence that funding is inadequate, colleges continue to be strong and robust, working to deliver solutions for more than two million people, including over 600,000 16- to 18-year-olds. Every college I visit has a great story to tell on the impact they are having, the students they are supporting and the employers they are working with.

So, with that improving picture all set out, where were the interesting observations this year?

For me there were a few. Perhaps top of the list is just how explicitly the chief inspector describes the negative impact of inadequate funding for colleges. She points out all the issues we have been campaigning on – how it makes governance and leadership so much harder, how teaching time and resources are being cut and how student choice, support and breadth of offer are worsening as colleges struggle to make ends meet.

It was a nice calm morning of sensible observations

I obviously will always agree with Amanda Spielman’s assertion that “the real-term cuts to FE and skills funding are affecting the sustainability and quality of FE provision. My strong view is that the government should use the forthcoming spending review to increase the base rate for 16 to 18 funding after inspections found a lack of cash has directly led to falling standards in FE”.

Beyond that, I liked the focus on apprenticeships that meet the letter of the rules, but perhaps fall foul of a softer and subtler test of meeting the spirit of the apprenticeship levy. I have said time and again how worried I am that management and degree apprenticeships for people in senior roles in big organisations, and for the highest achieving young people, don’t feel like a priority, when SMEs are being denied apprenticeship funding because of non-levy cash restrictions. It’s great to see Ofsted recognising that and asserting that attention needs to be paid to it.

I’m also struck at how much Ofsted recognises that further education is a rapidly changing policy environment. T-levels are set to come in place into place in 2020; the way apprenticeships are funded has changed since the introduction of the levy; and college mergers are becoming increasingly common. Dealing with all those changes can sometimes hinder leadership and management; taking away time that would be better spent improving quality.

Finally, I was pleased to see the focus on where our future leaders will emerge from. Over the last few months we’ve seen an increase in the spate of principal resignations and concerns from prospective future leaders about the risks of being a leader. The job of managing a college is a tough one as many principals will know all too well, especially with the tight funding constraints many of them are having to juggle. Cuts to their budgets, struggles over the recruitment and retention of staff, balancing college mergers – principals have a lot on their plate and proper planning is needed to mitigate the risks that come with this.

So all in all, it was a nice calm morning of sensible observations, which give us all food for thought as we strive to achieve a better education system that works for everyone, everywhere at all stages of life.