A move to campus-level Ofsted grades for college groups is back on the cards and they could be introduced as soon as next September, FE Week can reveal.
The education watchdog will shortly meet with college leaders to discuss the move and a consultation will be run early in the new year.
If support for it is there, Ofsted will not wait for a new inspection framework to launch the change.
“College voices may not get fair representation in a single report”
Campus-level grading was first mooted in 2017 but chief inspector Amanda Spielman (pictured) ruled it out last year as the inspectorate needed “more granulated performance data”.
Paul Joyce, Ofsted’s director for FE and skills, has now acknowledged that data should no longer be a barrier, but affordability and resource might be.
Big college groups, including the likes of NCG and Luminate Education (formerly known as Leeds City College Group), said they would support the move, stating that it would be more useful for students, parents and employers “to see separate reports for their colleges”.
Joyce revealed the plans during an FE Week event last week after he was challenged on the set-up of current inspection reports and the issues they hold for college groups.
Tresham College in Northamptonshire, for example, was awarded a grade four based on an inspection in June 2016. On 1 August 2017 it merged with Bedford College Group and had its Ofsted rating wiped.
It still exists with its own website and Tresham College branding with its main “iconic campus on Windmill Avenue” in Kettering and a “modern £36 million Corby campus”.
Tresham College campuses are 25 and 35 miles from Bedford College. Bedford College Group, including Tresham College, was inspected in September 2019 and received a grade two for overall effectiveness.
But the now very short report, which only has three pages of feedback, tells the reader nothing about Tresham’s previous grade four, nor does it say anything that identifies provision at the college’s two sites.
Just this week Newcastle and Stafford Colleges Group was given the first grade one for a college under the new inspection framework. It was the first full inspection of the group since it was formed from a merger of Newcastle-under-Lyme College and Stafford College in 2016.
The latter was rated as “inadequate” at its previous inspection in February 2016, but the new report said nothing about the previous grade or about the specific provision at the Stafford site.
A similar situation will occur for NCG. Among the seven individual colleges in its group are Lewisham and Southwark, which are London-based and located 300 miles away from NCG’s headquarters in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Asked what a resident in south London would find out about the quality of the learning experience at Lewisham College in NCG’s report under the new inspection framework, Joyce admitted that it would be “next to nothing”.
Liz Bromley, chief executive of NCG, said her group was “concerned that our college voices – with their variation in scale and size – may not get fair representation in a single, brief, group-level report”.
Bedford College Group declined to comment on the potential move to campus-level Ofsted grading, other than to say it was “delighted to gain a group-wide ‘good’ status in our latest inspection”.
David Corke, director of education and skills policy at the Association of Colleges, said his organisation was in favour of campus grades as they are “important for large college groups and multi-site colleges to be inspected fairly”.
He added that Ofsted was now engaging with the sector through pilot inspections to “make sure that the model used to inspect and/or grade colleges is fair, proportionate and avoids the prospect of limiting grades”.
The idea of campus-level grades was brought to the table two years ago, and the prospect was heightened in August 2018 after the Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that it would introduce campus-level performance reporting from the 2018/19 academic year.
Government data now identifies a “campus within a college group” that is “no longer a separate legal entity”.
“The problem is getting greater as more colleges merge”
While official achievement rate data is no longer a barrier to include campus grading under the new Ofsted framework, which was rolled out in September, the watchdog will probably have to gain extra funding from the DfE to make it happen.
A similar deal was struck in September 2018 for Ofsted to visit all new providers entering the apprenticeships market. The DfE handed over £5.4 million, which is being used until March 2020 to carry out as many as 1,200 two-day monitoring visits.
Joyce acknowledged that the problem of overall college group grades is getting greater as more and more colleges merge.
The DfE launched post-16 area reviews in September 2015, which have led to the number of general FE colleges in England shrinking from 241 to 193 as of April 2019, according to an “end of programme report” published by the government.
And data produced by the Association of Colleges states that there are currently 248 further education and sixth-form colleges in England, compared with almost 450 when colleges were incorporated in 1993.
What do the five largest college groups in England think about campus grading?
Number of individual colleges: 1
Overall staff numbers: 3,227*
Total income: £183,877,000*
Current Ofsted grade: 2
Despite being the college group with the largest income, the LTE Group only has one college: The Manchester College.
The group is a not-for-profit social enterprise that also encompasses two independent training providers – UCEN Manchester and Total People – as well as a commercial provider called MOL, and a prison education provider, Novus.
John Evans, vice principal at The Manchester College, said Ofsted should “distinguish between multi-site colleges like ours and groups which include several distinct colleges, often geographically dispersed and previously separate institutions”.
“Common sense suggests inspecting the latter separately would lead to more useful reports when identifying the individual and relative strengths and weaknesses of each constituent college,” he told FE Week.
“They probably serve different localities; therefore their responsiveness to different local economic priorities should be evaluated in inspection.”
He added that a single inspection of a whole group of colleges, particularly given the “narrower range of judgments contained in much shorter reports”, does not make differences in areas such as safeguarding and curriculum “clear enough to a reader looking for help in deciding whether or not to enrol at one of the colleges”.
Evans said the LTE Group, on the other hand, comprises a number of “complementary” providers including just one college, which currently has nine sites or campuses. They all “share a curriculum responsive to the same local employment priorities, the same localised governance arrangements and broadly the same safeguarding challenges”.
He added: “Our biggest challenge is ensuring provision is consistently high quality across every site, so inspection of the whole college makes much more sense.”
Number of individual colleges: 7
Overall staff numbers: 2,399*
Total income: £158,234,000*
Current Ofsted grade: 3
NCG, formerly known as the Newcastle Colleges Group, is the largest group in terms of the number of individual colleges.
Its divisions include Carlisle College, Kidderminster College, Lewisham College, Newcastle College, Newcastle Sixth Form College, Southwark College and Lewisham College.
Liz Bromley, chief executive of the group, said her group would “fully support campus-based inspections” as they “will give our local learners, partners, stakeholders and employers important information about our colleges”.
“We have been monitoring the early inspection reports with interest, particularly in relation to the changes in format, content and intended audience,” she told FE Week.
“The curriculum-based focus is welcome, and appropriate, even though it presents a challenge to a college group such as ours. We are concerned that our college voices – with their variation in scale and size – may not get fair representation in a single, brief, group-level report.
“We are delighted to have the opportunity to give our feedback directly to Ofsted through an AoC working group, where we will show both our support for the campus-level inspections and raise our concerns about the complexity of group-level reports.”
Capital City College Group
Number of individual colleges: 3
Overall staff numbers: 1,474*
Total income: £111,987,000*
Current Ofsted grade: 2
The group encompasses three colleges – City and Islington College, Westminster Kingsway College and The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London – spread across 11 sites across London.
It also runs an independent provider called Capital City College Training.
On the prospect of campus-level inspections, a Capital City College Group spokesperson said: “We have 11 main sites across five London boroughs that between them teach a wide range of courses and levels from culinary arts to construction, animal management to rail engineering, to over 24,000 students aged from 14 to 89.
“As such a complex organisation with so many students and subject areas, we feel that it’s important that inspections can provide as complete a picture of college life – as well as adequately assessing the quality of teaching and learning – as possible.
“So we would welcome a consultation by Ofsted that looks into expanding their inspection regime so that it can provide much richer information to current and potential students, their families and all our stakeholders.”
Luminate Education Group
Number of individual colleges: 4
Overall staff numbers: 1,265*
Total income: £98,588,000*
Current Ofsted grade: Not inspected as a group yet
Leeds City College Group changed its name to the Luminate Education Group this year.
Its divisions now include Leeds City College, Keighley College, Harrogate College, and Leeds College of Music. It also runs the White Rose Academies Trust.
Colin Booth, the group’s chief executive, said campus-level inspections would be “helpful”.
“Luminate Education Group would welcome campus-based inspections. Ofsted inspections provide feedback and help us to focus so that we can ensure that all our colleges and schools continue to improve,” he told FE Week.
“We think that it would be more helpful for Leeds City College, Keighley College and Harrogate College if we were to receive separate Ofsted reports for each college. We also think that it would be more useful for students, parents and employers in Leeds, Keighley and Harrogate to see separate reports for their colleges.
“For education (or college) groups long term, we also think that it would be a good idea to receive short reports on how well the group is performing as a whole. This shouldn’t be difficult – it could easily be based around how well we are supporting each college and school to improve.”
Bedford College Group
Number of individual colleges: 5
Overall staff numbers: 812*
Total income: £82,375,000*
Current Ofsted grade: 2
The Bedford College Group encompasses Bedford College, Shuttleworth College, The Bedford Sixth Form, and Tresham College. It also runs the National College for Motorsport.
When asked if they would welcome campus-level inspections, the group said it did not wish to comment at this early stage of the process.
A spokesperson did say that they were “delighted” to gain a group-wide ‘good’ status in its latest Ofsted inspection.
*This data has been taken from the groups’ latest available accounts, for 2017/18.