Frank Coffield steals Ofsted’s language to grade last week’s new inspection framework

How do FE and Skills (FE&S) fare in the new inspection framework? I’ve inspected the proposals from the perspective of FE&S and provide formative feedback using Ofsted’s grading scale and language.

First, its strengths. The handbook is much shorter than its predecessor, but still runs to 57 pages and is apparently not “exhaustive”. The five key judgments will cover: quality of education; behaviour and attitudes; personal development; leadership and management; overall effectiveness. Evaluating the quality of education is a major improvement rather than just test and exam results. There’s also recognition that changes to inspection should not drive up teacher workload.

I welcome the move to put curriculum back at the framework’s heart; colleges will now be judged on the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum. Inspectors will draw on five sources of evidence for intent, eight for implementation and five for impact.

Leaders will need to demonstrate that their curriculum is “ambitious”, “coherently planned “and contains “content which has been identified as most useful”…but who will decide this? They will also have to convince inspectors that “they have planned the coverage, content, structure and sequencing of the curriculum, and can show that they have implemented it effectively”. These are huge burdens, but still more is required. Teachers also must ensure that “content is taught in a logical progression, systematically and explicitly for all learners”. What’s the logical progression in the teaching of history or hairdressing, biology or business studies? Will Ofsted confirm that all its inspectors will be subject specialists?

During the consultation period Ofsted needs to answer these questions and explain what it means by “ambitious”, “coherent” and “most useful content”.

To apply one adjective to a mega FE college is statistical nonsense

Ofsted remains wedded to its four-point grading scale, but to apply one adjective to a mega FE college with 30,000 students and 30 departments is a statistical nonsense because it cannot reflect complexity and variety. Mick Fletcher, of the Policy Consortium, pointed out that large parts of college activity, such as higher education and overseas students, fall outside Ofsted’s remit “making a whole college grade even less appropriate”. One adjective applied to any but the smallest specialist college is an absurdity.

Ofsted claims the criteria for its judgments are drawn in part from research, but its overview of research concedes it “is in large part drawn from that done in schools and early years settings”. There is indeed little research done in the FE&S sector, but what does exist seems unknown to Ofsted’s research department. Instead teachers are regaled with such profound insights as “Pupils are likely to make progress at different rates”; and “when a pupil answers a question incorrectly, the teacher needs to point out swiftly that the answer is wrong”. Who knew?

There’s also a glaring omission. Data is required on nearly every feature of a college’s work except resources. This is a case of the elephant missing from the room. Given the severe, repeated cuts since 2010 to the unit of resource for 16 to 19-year-olds, which have damaged sixth-form and FE colleges, the level of resource should once again be an essential part of the data collected by inspectors. To its credit (and unlike the DfE), Ofsted has at least acknowledged that sixth forms and colleges have been restricted by the funding cuts, which does beg the question of why it’s then omitted it here.

To sum up, the new focus on the curriculum is an advance, but Ofsted needs to explain many of the terms it uses to describe it. It expresses concern about teacher workload, but this framework will not reduce it.

Does it avoid crude and stigmatising labels by dropping the grades? No. Is it informed by research on the sector? No. Does it take the unit of resource into account? No. Overall effectiveness? It contains some useful improvements, but requires substantial clarifications, revisions, omissions and additions. After all Ofsted’s work, it would be unfair to try to encapsulate its complexity with just one adjective.