Ofsted’s enhanced inspections which assess how well colleges are meeting local skills needs were introduced at the start of the term. Jason Noble spoke to leaders of the first handful to be rated to find out their experience
Back in May, Ofsted published its latest five-year strategy, which made it clear that all colleges in England will be paid a visit by inspectors within a four-year time frame under new “enhanced inspections”.
Those visits, introduced in September, continue to feature the usual inspection criteria, such as quality of teaching, leadership, high needs and safeguarding, but this time with the added assessment of how well a college is meeting the skills needs in its local area too.
It comes amid a drive to introduce new local skills improvement plans, which are designed to identify local employers’ skills needs so that colleges and training providers can align the courses they offer accordingly.
Ofsted’s visits to colleges now feature an additional dedicated inspector or inspectors, and allow colleges to put forward a second nominee to be a point of liaison specifically on those skills elements.
But unlike the other criteria, which go by the well-established ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ grades, skills inspections feature one of three ratings – ‘significant’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘limited’ contribution to skills needs.
Not subject to a separate report, the skills inspections feature as a sub-judgement and a paragraph in the main report, and so far, at least, do not appear to be actively influencing a change in an overall inspection grade.
Progress so far
At the time of going to press, six colleges have had published reports containing the new skills section. So how did the first batch fare?
One ‘significant’, four ‘reasonable’ and one ‘limited’ would suggest a broad experience of findings already, as those at the front of the line attempt to navigate their way through new criteria with little precedent to draw on. As such, views on those visits differ.
Newham College of Further Education in London secured the top ‘significant’ rating, with deputy principal Jamie Purser saying: “Inspectors saw a lot of people and a lot of touchpoints, we felt it was representative.
“There was a lot of work went into it, they asked for position papers and skills statements, so we felt it was representative of what we do.”
But Graham Pennington, principal and chief executive at Sandwell College in the West Midlands, which achieved a ‘reasonable’, pointed to a lack of clarity in several areas.
He said the skills judgement doesn’t neatly fit with a lot of his college’s work, such as ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) courses which was more of a foundation or “stepping stone” qualification rather than working towards a specific skills gap, or, as the West Midlands’ largest 16-18 provider, how skills contribution is assessed when so many students go to university or leave the area rather than enter the local labour market.
He added: “There is a bit of a question about local – do you mean Sandwell in our case, do you mean the region? What does you take as meeting local needs? What is local? I didn’t really feel that was fully explored with us before the inspection – what is the context and range that they wanted to look at?”
A spokesperson at Strode College meanwhile – the first to be given a ‘limited’ rating – said “failure to meet one of the criteria sufficiently is effectively a limited grade”.
Local meetings needed
As part of its evidence gathering, inspectors looked at colleges’ strategic plans, skills statements, and conducted surveys with employers they worked with.
But colleges were also expected to set up meetings for inspectors with key stakeholders they felt could explain the college’s work on meeting skills provision.
Colleges were given around six days’ notice to prepare those – a piece of work all the colleges agreed was “intense” and one “not to be underestimated,” according to Pennington.
Smaller colleges like Derwentside were required to set up 12 meetings, but larger ones like Newham and Sandwell had 30-40 meetings – a mix of video calls, telephone chats and face to-face meetings over just a couple of days.
Those meetings were picked by colleges and featured a diverse mix of voices, including local or mayoral combined authorities, business groups such as local enterprise partnerships and chambers of commerce, employers both large and small, NHS trusts, local schools, and job centres.
In addition, Purser said: “They went into quite a lot of lessons and said ‘tell us what you know about skills, tell us what you know about local jobs, do you know how much you might get if you are going to go into these sectors, what sort of jobs are available.’
Purser continued: “They did quite a lot of triangulations between our external stakeholders, our strategy documents, what governors knew, and how much they supported and promoted what we were doing, so it was quite a detailed, quite a forensic examination of our skills policies.”
And from speaking to the first four, it becomes clear that the differentiator between a ‘significant’ and a ‘reasonable’ is around how well embedded employers are in curriculum planning.
Purser said it is weaved into all aspects of Newham’s business, from strategic plans to resources and estates documents, and right through to on-the-ground teaching – even in ESOL courses where CVs, job boards and newspaper adverts are fed into the curriculum.
Chris Todd, principal and chief executive at Derwentside in the north east, which secured a ‘reasonable’ rating, added: “We came very close to a strong, but one of our strands, a small point, that pulled us away really, it was just around the way we engage with employers to design our study programmes. We do it in bits but there is not a strategic approach.”
Todd said following the visit the college is now working on sector-specific employer focus linked to its programmes to test out changes to the curriculum with employers on board.
Ofsted’s handbook says ‘limited’ sub-judgements will be instances where leaders “do not engage effectively enough with employers and other relevant stakeholders”, “do not ensure that the curriculum is planned and/or taught effectively”, and “are not sufficiently clear how they are contributing to skills needs”.
Growing in experience
Undoubtedly, as more reports are published colleges further down the line for inspection will be able to learn from the experience of others. But leaders having already gone through the process have already shared their tips.
Purser said feedback from the pilots held in the summer term earlier this year found that it wasn’t always best to get senior leaders for the stakeholder meetings, but people like training managers could sometimes provide more insight.
Todd, meanwhile, pointed to having things like destination data of college leavers.
Pennington said: “To prepare for this properly you need to develop your own skills narrative separate from just your strategic plan so it is clear how the two things fit together.”
All agreed that having the dedicated skills nominee was vital to co-ordinate the stakeholder meetings.
So, what do the quartet think could be improved? “It was quite difficult to get the right people within the organisations to talk to the inspectors at the right time, even given a weeks’ notice,” Strode’s spokesperson said.
“The overlap between what was additionally required within the extended EIF and the previous EIF caused some confusion in the early days,” they added.
Todd said he would rather Ofsted used its four-point grading system as it does for all other areas of the inspections, while Pennington wanted more understanding of colleges’ individual circumstances like student make-up and deprivation.
Derwentside’s deputy principal for strategic partnerships, Susan Errington, concluded: “The skills element is an opportunity for colleges to showcase what is good about FE. What you are seeing within the sixth form college sector is 100 per cent are now ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and general FE colleges are going in that direction. But for a ‘good’ college this is a great opportunity to showcase it.”