Over a six-year period, our college rating for apprenticeships improved from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’ – and we weren’t even focusing on inspections, says Jacqui Canton. Do the right things for the right reasons and good results will follow

It’s not often that I gain management inspiration from cult films of the 1990s, but Ofsted definitely makes me think of the Brad Pitt classic, Fight Club, although perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. And, for me, the first rule of becoming ‘outstanding’ is: you do not talk about Ofsted.

Preparing for Ofsted feels much like pushing a heavy boulder up a steep mountain, and it is all too easy to get bogged down in folders of evidence, examples of impact and reams of data. We know inspectors don’t want to see folders of evidence now, but I’m sure many of us keep our own files anyway, if only to organise our thoughts. Using the common inspection framework (CIF) criteria as a checklist can feel like a security blanket (and you should probably take more than a cursory glance at the criteria every now and then), but, honestly, don’t focus too much on Ofsted.

Abingdon and Witney College was graded inadequate for apprenticeships in 2011. Six years later we had grown exponentially, engaged with hundreds of amazing employers and positively changed the lives of hundreds of apprentices. We had delivered the highest general further education college timely achievement rates in England for 16-18s in 2013/14, and the second highest in England for all apprentices in 2016/17. We had won numerous awards and our apprentices had been recognised nationally. Ofsted agreed that we were outstanding.

We did this by doing the right things, for the right reasons. We weren’t seduced by big-name employers, by potential gaps in the market or by national contracts. We designed programmes that worked for local employers, and that gave apprentices the skills they needed. We used initial assessments to make sensible decisions about whether programmes were right for applicants. We tracked and monitored progress well, and worked hard to improve the quality of teaching, learning and assessment on and off the job, and in and out of the classroom. We were obsessive about paperwork and admin (we all should love our Management Information System teams a little more than we do), and adapted college systems where they didn’t work for apprenticeships. We invested in expertise through a stand-alone apprenticeship unit and ensured senior team commitment for apprenticeships was clear. And, despite aiming for growth, we didn’t take on employers who weren’t committed to training or applicants who weren’t ready for an apprenticeship. We didn’t talk a lot about Ofsted.

We weren’t seduced by big-name employers or national contracts

But, we ticked the Ofsted boxes anyway. Amazing provision that works for apprentices, employers and the teams delivering the provision, also works for Ofsted. It certainly did under the CIF, and I am sure will work even more so under the proposed new Education Inspection Framework (EIF). The key drivers of intent, implementation and impact that are central to the EIF are, I think, in keeping with my (admittedly less sophisticated) description of “doing the right things, for the right reasons”.

Of course, you have to keep doing the right things, for the right reasons. If you’ve pushed that boulder to the top of the mountain and achieved outstanding, the hard work doesn’t stop. No one wants a quick trip down the slippery slope on the other side of the mountain. We had a celebratory debrief the morning after the inspection, and, only five minutes in, my team started talking about the areas that they still wanted to improve. It’s that truly embedded (slightly obsessive) culture of continuous improvement that ensures they continue to deliver outstanding outcomes. We don’t get it right all the time and are far from perfect, but we always strive to do better for our apprentices, employers, ourselves and the college. If your team can do that then, we can all follow Tyler Durden’s lead in Fight Club: stop talking about Ofsted and just be outstanding.