Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, used yesterday’s annual report speech to repeat her criticism first aired in 2018 that a minority of colleges simply try to “fill their rolls and attract funding”, whether or not the programmes they offer “open doors for the students that take them”.  She added that some colleges were “flooding” local job markets “with young people with say low-level arts and media qualifications”. David Hughes tackles the criticism and whether, as suggested by the chief inspector, the government should step in

Unsurprisingly, the launch of Ofsted’s annual report has sparked many conversations; it always does because everyone becomes engrossed in debating whether Ofsted is getting it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. For colleges this year discussion has centred on whether courses offered to young people help them into jobs.

The relationship between course subject and employment outcomes is a complex one at all levels and in all types of education. It is broadly accepted that a degree in any subject is good preparation for the world of work. So singling out courses at lower levels is wrong and unfair. When employers recruit a graduate they expect a suite of skills, abilities and behaviours that allow someone to flourish in their organisation. The job-specific skills are achieved on the job; but are learned best by people with transferable skills. You don’t need a degree to have those skills; colleges students achieve them on courses at every level, and in every subject.

Colleges strive to make the best decisions for their students and the wider economy

We also know that for many students, they learn as much or perhaps even more from enrichment and extra-curricular activities. I cannot remember the last time I asked a candidate at interview about their qualifications, but I often ask about other activities which show the breadth of skills we are looking for.

It would also be short-sighted to suggest that every course can be matched directly to a job, not least because the labour market changes rapidly. When the best employers recruit, they are not looking to recruit people who are 100 per cent ready to do a specific job, but rather those with the potential to grow and develop, to learn and adapt. College courses develop student potential; they also build the confidence which unleashes it.

One of the accusations thrown at colleges is that they are not honest with potential students about the destinations and outcomes of a course. I’ve not seen evidence of that, but if it exists then I am confident that Ofsted will unearth it and report back through inspection reports. My experience, backed up by Ofsted in its inspections under the new framework, is that colleges strive to make the best decisions for their students and the wider economy. They do set out progression pathways and offer good IAG. Results are pretty good with the vast majority progressing onto study at higher levels or using their transferable skills in a whole range of sectors and roles.  

Ofsted’s new inspection framework speaks to this with deeper dives into the intent and impact of courses. It’s right to take a more developmental approach so that colleges can really focus on outcomes and positive destinations of students. But we need to understand those outcomes better and understand that most people do not have linear routes into work and through their careers. Careers are often messy, with initial qualifications counting for little and experience and broader skills and abilities mattering far more.

Over four years ago we found that the average college worked with over 600 employers. When I meet these employers, they enthusiastically talk about how their success depends on colleges supporting the development of their workforce for immediate and long-term skills needs. Investing in colleges to provide more advice to SMEs would result in more relationships like this – good for productivity as well as for student prospects.

I’m sceptical about anyone who believes they can determine what courses are needed to make the labour market more efficient. There are simply too many variables to make those sorts of direct links, particularly given that most of the 2030 workforce is already in work. That’s not to say that colleges should not look at labour market information, they do. Along with working with their local economic development team, the Local Enterprise Partnership, employer bodies and large and small employers.

Ultimately, colleges are expert at offering people the chance to succeed, no matter their circumstance or background. They do this by helping people find their passion and gain the transferable skills employers are crying out for. Employers working with colleges have high satisfaction levels, as do students and outcomes are very good too. Any intervention must not come at the expense of this.