DfE plans for all ‘outstanding’ providers to be inspected over next five years

Gavin Williamson has vowed to send Ofsted inspectors into every ‘outstanding’ training provider in England within five years, as he confirmed an earlier pledge to lift their inspection exemption.

The education secretary announced last September that the exemption, introduced by Michael Gove in 2012, would finally be abandoned. It followed repeated warnings from Ofsted that it was masking poor performance in colleges and providers that are currently protected from scrutiny.

Williamson has now confirmed he wants Ofsted to begin regularly inspecting grade one providers within five years of September 2020 – the normal timescale for inspections of those rated ‘good’.

A consultation on the move, which is subject to parliamentary approval, is being launched today.

If the exemption is lifted, grade one providers that have recently been given the once over can expect a short inspection, while those visited prior to September 2015 will be treated at length.

FE Week analysis has found 155 FE and skills providers are currently rated as grade one – although almost half of them (47 per cent) have not had a full inspection in over five years.

The five year timeframe may mean providers that have not been checked up on for as long as 13 years – for example, independent provider SAKS (Education) Limited – could have gone almost two decades without inspection.

But the Department for Education said Ofsted will prioritise visiting those providers that have gone longest without inspections.

Williamson said the exemption has meant “there is often not an up-to-date picture” of a provider’s standards.

And although the government “continues to trust our best schools and colleges to get on with the job of education”, making sure all providers are regularly reviewed “means parents will benefit from the expert insight Ofsted provides”.

FE Week understands lifting the outstanding exemption will cost Ofsted between £5 million and £10 million.

The Department for Education this week said it was not in a position to reveal how much additional money would be sent to the watchdog. That was a matter for the upcoming spending review.

The move has been welcomed by the Association of School and College Leaders, with its deputy director of policy Duncan Baldwin saying that while the exemption policy was “well-intentioned”, it is “time to reverse it” – especially because a new inspection framework was introduced in September.

The current exemption policy already permits Ofsted to revisit up to 10 per cent of grade one providers each year, so it has not stopped some colleges from losing their grade one: Swindon College, which was rated ‘outstanding’ in 2013, fell to grade three after an inspection in December 2018 found that leaders “had failed to maintain standards” after a large number of teachers and managers left the college.

Bury College dropped to grade three in 2017, ten years after a grade one in 2007, because of ineffective self-assessment, inconsistent teaching and low achievement rates.

Kendal College suffered a shorter drop from its grade one in 2010, to a grade two in 2017.