Ofsted has announced a consultation which will propose replacing the ‘satisfactory’ grade with ‘requires improvement’ for all further education (FE) colleges.

The inspection shake-up follows similar suggestions put forward by the new chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in a bid to tackle “coasting schools”.

Matthew Coffey, national director of learning and skills at Ofsted (pictured right), said the new rating could be put into effect from September 2012.

Mr Coffey said: “Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, announced on 17 January 2012 his intention to scrap the ‘satisfactory’ grade for school inspections and to replace it with ‘requires improvement’.

“The same arguments for doing so apply to the learning and skills sector as for schools.

“Ofsted will therefore further consult with the sector on making the same change in respect of the grade criteria used for the Common Inspection Framework from September 2012.”

Ofsted say they will publish the new inspection arrangements in May, alongside the results of the previous consultation, ‘Common Inspection Framework 2012’, which ended in November 2011.

The Institute for Learning (IfL) says changing the ‘satisfactory’ grade will not by itself force colleges to improve.

Toni Fazaeli, IfL’s chief executive, said: “Everyone involved in teaching and learning understands that all learners deserve high-quality provision.

“They need to learn in conditions where their teachers and trainers are given proper opportunities and support to continually develop and improve their practice.

“Changing the satisfactory grade alone will not achieve this.”

Ms Fazaeli said adding an additional rating, such as the proposed ‘requires improvement’, would not be enough to improve the performance of FE colleges.

“We do not believe an additional grade would benefit the sector but, nor would a simple rebrand,” she said.

“Ofsted needs to look at how seriously institutions take the development needs and conditions of their teachers and trainers.”

She added: “Our members frequently tell us that administrative burdens are a significant barrier to reflecting on and developing their practice as professionals thus inhibiting their ability to update and to try new approaches, fully utilise technology and ultimately improve their practice.”

The Association of Colleges (AoC) say they welcome the consultation and want ‘satisfactory and improving’ to be considered by Ofsted as a new rating.

“We are pleased that Ofsted intends to consult the sector on the proposal to change the grade name from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘requires improvement’,” Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the AoC said.

“AoC and partners will respond in full to that consultation; our response will be clear about the number of colleges (including those who have recently merged) on an improvement trajectory.”

She added: “As such, there is an argument that ‘satisfactory and improving’ could be a useful additional judgement (distinct from ‘requires improvement’).”

The 157 Group say the satisfactory rating “implies a negative concept”, while the other Ofsted ratings are “somewhat subjective”.

“We believe a rebranding of the satisfactory grade may  be better as there has to be a middle way between outstanding and inadequate,” a 157 Group spokesperson said.

“Good would be fine and we  can appreciate that we should all should be above satisfactory. ”

The spokesperson added: “The use of the term now does implies a negative concept and it was not meant to do that in the framework.

“The grades however are somewhat subjective and we believe that the below average scale does not necessarily mean poor.”

Mr Coffey justified Ofsted’s proposals and explained the findings of the last annual report at the EMFEC Centenary Conference, held in Daventry two weeks ago.

Mr Coffey said: “The annual report this year for Ofsted was actually quite hard hitting, and quite hard hitting on the FE and skills sector.

“What we did find, and that may have been lost in translation, is that there is outstanding teaching and learning in colleges, there’s outstanding teaching and learning across the board of all that we inspect in learning and skills.

“But of course, without sufficient consistency, that didn’t lead to overall outstanding grades for the quality of teaching.”

Mr Coffey said previous proposals to scrap the ‘satisfactory’ grade for schools didn’t reference colleges because Sir Michael Wilshaw had “a greater level of comfort” in that area of education.

“Stuck at satisfactory was again a theme which came out of this year’s annual report,” Mr Coffey said.

“So Michael has chosen to focus in on this in his early days of chief inspector and naturally his schools background have led him to have a greater level of comfort at this moment in time to speak eloquently on those particular subjects.”

Forty five colleges, 75 independent learning providers and 11 providers of adult and community learning were judged to be either ‘satisfactory’ or ‘inadequate’ in the last annual report published by Ofsted.

Of the 45 colleges, 22 had received the ‘satisfactory’ grade for two consecutive inspections, with a further 16 receiving the grade for three inspections running.

Mr Coffey said: “There is overwhelming support for us to look down the lens at satisfactory.

“So I am going to come back out to the sector and talk to you about where we see the differences.”

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  1. Susie Kusnierz

    So does that mean that “inadequate” organisations do NOT require improvement? It would appear to me that somebody needs a lesson in semantics. Perhaps what is required is an additional subgrade for organisations that remain at satisfactory for more than one inspection or indeed those that decline from good to satisfactory – “coasting”?

  2. Mike Cooper

    And, equally, does the message being sent out here imply that those providers rated ‘Good’ or even ‘Outstanding’ do NOT require any improvement?

    That’s not a message that most around the sector or more widely would really accept, if pushed. We’d especially hope so from an inspectorate which (for a range of reasons that are not always very comfortable or convincing) has been moving more and more to a further message that “If you’re outstanding, we won’t inspect you very much!” — only to find a significant decline in performance amongst the high-performing providers over the past two years!

    Still, in terms of Ofsted semantics, it is at least a step forward from the possibility (mooted not long ago) of using the term ‘Inconsistent’ for those providers who have received the same grading several times in a row. Such an idea was so manifestly nonsensical that it makes one think the provision for literacy in some parts of the government and its agencies such as Ofsted need careful, ummmm, inspection…

  3. The semantics game could be played endlessly, but we do need to stick to the 4 grade pattern (also used for students’ work!)as it provides a clear distinction between the two upper (successful) grades and the 2 lower (needing improvement) ones. It was a mistake therefore to have labelled the 3rd grade as ‘satisfactory’ when it clearly is not wholly so! I am (uncharacteristically) with Ofsted on this one, although maybe ‘requires some improvement’ might be a more acceptable descriptor, as it would acknowledge that certain areas of inspection were in fact satisfactory in the true sense of the word!