> Ofsted chief tells MPs colleges are in ‘mess’ and 16-19 should stay at school
> Personal opinion sparks ‘anger’ as AoC letter demands evidence for claims

The government is distancing itself from inflammatory remarks made by Sir Michael Wilshaw (pictured above), after the Ofsted head told MPs he believed 16 to 19-year-olds should be taught in schools, not colleges.

Sir Michael’s comments during an appearance at the Commons Education Select Committee (ESC) on March 2 have provoked widespread anger in the FE sector.

“We are very supportive of the work done by colleges and distance ourselves from Sir Michael’s comments,” a source close to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has told FE Week.

The Ofsted chief inspector laid into the FE sector during Wednesday’s evidence session, describing it as “in a mess — that’s why the government is reviewing it”.

“My view is that 16 to 19 should be done in school,” he told the committee, chaired by Neil Carmichael MP.

Vulnerable learners who need a familiar environment “head off towards the FE institution which is a large, amorphous institution on a number of campuses and do badly. They get lost. Drop out,” he continued.

“Youngsters who don’t do very well at 16 often don’t do very well two years later, particularly in English and maths where the results are pretty poor,” he added.

The reliance on success rates to secure funding meant that “too many youngsters are put on level one courses when they should be challenged to do level two”.

Sir Michael went on: “We also find in too many general FE institutions that they haven’t thought carefully enough about their curriculum. The curriculum is often irrelevant to the local workplace and national employment.”

FE Week’s news story about the chief inspector’s comments provoked an unprecedented and unanimous backlash, with more than 40 comments posted on the FE Week website in just 24 hours – many of which criticised him for airing his personal opinions in a public capacity.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (pictured), has challenged Sir Michael to justify his opinions — which he said have caused “a good deal of consternation and anger” — in a letter that he has shared with FE Week.

Martin Doel

“Quite apart from the conflict inherent in Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector being called to give evidence in his official capacity and then providing a personal opinion, even personal opinions require justification if they are not to be regarded as mere prejudice or an unreliable anecdotal judgement,” Mr Doel wrote.

He called on Sir Michael to provide “as a matter of urgency a clear rationale for your conclusions”.

“It would be all the better if those conclusions corresponded with the judgment of the inspectors in your organisation;

“I fail to see how this could be so given that 82 per cent of colleges who provide 16 to 18 education have been judged good or outstanding in recent Ofsted inspections,” he continued.

Wednesday’s evidence session was not the first time Sir Michael has attacked the FE sector.

During a speech for the thinktank CentreForum in January, the Ofsted boss said that “educational provision, for the many children who do not succeed at 16 or who would prefer an alternative to higher education, is inadequate at best and non-existent at worst”.

The University and College Union described Sir Michael’s comments this week as unhelpful and offensive.

A spokesperson from Ofsted said it was clear that its boss’s comments were his own personal views.

The Department for Education declined to comment.

FE Week readers don’t hold back with online comments

Lynne Sedgmore, former chief executive at 157 Group

Lynne Sedgmore

This man speaks from limited knowledge as he has never bothered to visit or spend time in FE colleges or to read any facts.

He has no right to spill his personal unfounded predudice and ideological distortions onto hardworking, successful FE colleges, staff and students.

These statements are probably setting himself up for his next role – please retire with dignity not with such disgraceful nonsense.


Carole Kitching, Principal at Lewisham and Southwark college

Carole Kitching

Shockingly ill informed comments undermining the credibility of Ofsted and the positive choices made by over 840,000 young people every year.

No wonder technical and professional vocational education struggles to gain parity of esteem with traditional academic pathways.

Every public statement like this costs us 100s more young would be apprentices.


Ben Verinder, former director of comms at the AoC

Ben Verinder
Ben Verinder

‘Vulnerable learners do badly in college’ says Mr Wilshaw.

It’s so patently untrue, such a crude assessment, as to be laughable.

Except it was made in front of a select committee and the national media. Bravo to those calling out this nonsense, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be making any difference.

Can you impeach an HMCI? Strike them off? Before they blame colleges for, say, primary results?




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  1. Mike Pevitt

    He should resign, his personal thoughts do not belong in the public arena and i don’t recognise the environment he describes. FE colleges often pick up the learners schools and 6th Form colleges don’t want, they have been failed by the school sector and FE colleges ae expected to get them through to a C at GCSE after a max of 30 weeks teaching when schools have had 5 years. Some colleges preform miracles with some of these vulnerable young people and do get them to the promised land of a pass, an apprenticeship or a proper job. Wilshaw demonstrates his complete arrogance to this hardworking sector, and completely mis-understands why the reviews are taking place, saving money with qualifications in a poor second place.

  2. Don Baker

    This man states that “Youngsters who don’t do very well at 16 often don’t do very well two years later, particularly in English and maths where the results are pretty poor,”. He might have a point. But, they didn’t do well at English and Maths after 11 years in school. It’s a bit strong to expect FE institutions to turn them all around on another two years. It’s amazing that FE gets the results it does in these subjects, given that most of the underperforming youngsters have been completely turned-off these subjects by those self-same schools he wants them to remain at. My experience shows that most of the youngsters enjoy their courses and the rapport they establish with their tutors, who often have a wealth of world-experience in the vocational subjects and know how to connect with them. Which subjects do they hate? Why English and Maths of course, where the decent tutors struggle to undo the poor attitude to these subjects that the schools have somehow nurtured in the kids. In interviews with applicants I routinely tell them that, no matter how much they detest English and Maths at school, they must make achieving grade C or better their top priority or else they will just have to try again at college. It motivates them more than it should. There is something wrong, but don’t blame FE. The man needs to come along and check for himself. But he doesn’t does he?

    • Don, although Wilshaw has the title ‘Chief Inspector’ it is not an accurate title as he has not been an inspector. When I think back to the other inspectorates such as the FEFC, TSC and ALI the Chief Inspectors did go out on inspections and inspect so they understood the process. In terms of our sector he has visited an inspection and seen some senior college managers but has no real concept of the work of an FE College, Sixth Form College or training provider. His views on ‘Learning and Skills’ were set when he was appointed and clear to all of us from his first ‘speech’ to HMIs. Nothing has changed and he still does not understand the sector. Ofsted still has not conducted a survey to identify best practice in English and maths in order to promote improvement, despite it being such a priority. Schools continue to get outstanding when they are failing far too many of their pupils. It would be interesting for Ofsted to examine how many youngsters start in sixth forms only to be dumped around the New Year when they don’t do well in their AS levels. I have personally come across hundreds of such youngsters this year when working in colleges and training providers. Of course we know where they will end up and be disadvantaged because of not starting in September. Wilshaw made a comment about FE not understanding the destinations of their learners? It was not helped when Ofsted removed the section on destinations from their document ‘what providers need to provide in advance of inspections’ over the past two full years of inspection. This sent out a message that it was no longer required. No one in Ofsted would (dare) criticise the Chief Inspector publicly without his permission, so a message doing just that seems to indicate that it is just not our sector that has lost all confidence and respect for HMCI, but Ofsted themselves.

  3. 11 years in schools and a great deal of students do not gain their C’s in English and Maths.
    9 months later in a college and many of them attain these important qualifications.
    Contrary to Wilshaw’s comments, some learners need a different environment from the cycle of failure they experience in schools.

    Also, we are not always educating to meet local or national needs as most forward thinking educators understand we live in a global employment market.

    His comments are out of touch and he should go.