‘Inadequate’ colleges double-digit disaster as English and maths policy blamed

The number of general further education colleges to have been branded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted since September has hit double figures, exclusive FE Week analysis has revealed.

College leaders have blamed the government’s increased focus on English and maths, pinning what they call “unfair” expectations on colleges for the rise in grade fours.

Ten colleges have now been handed the lowest possible grade from the education watchdog since the introduction of the new common inspection framework in September, compared to five in the same period last year.

The most recent of these was Telford College of Arts and Technology (TCAT), which had its Ofsted report published on Tuesday (June 14).

All 10 colleges were slammed by inspectors for their English and maths provision, with criticism in these areas appearing in the key findings on all 10 reports.

When shown FE Week’s figures, Gill Clipson (pictured), deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges said: “It is unfair to expect colleges to help young people achieve the necessary grade C in GCSE English and maths in one year, when they have not been successful after 11 years in school.”

She added that “it is expected” Ofsted would focus on English and maths as improving standards in these areas “is a key government policy”.

“The colleges that do well in inspections are those that can prove that their students, regardless of their starting point, have progressed during their studies,” she continued.

David Russell, chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation, agreed that Ofsted was “placing more emphasis on maths and English in the 16-to-19 phase”.

“It is a huge government priority, and an area where colleges have a massive challenge,” he said.

“Ofsted has no alternative but to say what they see; and in our view many colleges are under-resourced in key ways to deliver the high expectations that government rightly has of them,” he continued.

Mr Russell said that, while funding was an issue, “the bigger challenge is recruiting, training and retaining enough teachers with the right skills and experience to teach maths and English to young people who have not yet succeeded in them”.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, also criticised Ofsted’s inspection methods of maths and English within traineeships.

He complained about providers “being given ‘required to improve’ gradings by Ofsted based solely on English and maths outcomes, as Ofsted is not willing to accept destination data as robust evidence”.

Since 2013, colleges have been required to enrol all learners who don’t already have at least a grade C in English and maths on courses in these subjects.

The requirement is part of the study programmes, which were introduced following a recommendation by Professor Alison Wolf in her 2011 review of vocational education, the Wolf Report.

FE Week’s analysis also showed that four colleges had lost their top grade since September – including Accrington and Rossendale College, which dropped to grade three on Tuesday (June 14).

The quality of English and maths provision is an issue for three out of those four colleges.

This comes at a bad time for FE, after chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw caused uproar in the sector when he told MPs he believed 16 to 19-year-olds should be taught in schools, not colleges.

The unrepentant Ofsted boss is likely to feel that these grade fours vindicate his comments to the Commons education select committee in March, when he said the FE sector was “in a mess — that’s why the government is reviewing it”.

There have so far been 51 full inspections of general FE colleges since September, a rise of 13 on the same period last year.

Of these, 20 colleges have been rated ‘good’ – an increase of seven from this time last year.

TCAT’s interim principal Jo Lomax said the college was “extremely disappointed” by its inadequate grading.

Accrington and Rossendale’s principal Sue Taylor told FE Week: “We accept the outcome of Ofsted’s visit”.


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  1. Anonymous

    Always nice to see OFSTED being so supportive of the FE sector. English, Maths and other basic skills take years to build up so perhaps the focus should be placed on the feeder schools that have failed to get these learners to the GCSE A*-C rather than us being expected to turn it around at the last minute.

    Many colleges have expressed concerns about the basic skills coming from academies but of course they are the darling of OFSTED and the government and are obviously nothing to do with their poor actual skills.

    I would like to see English and Maths provision provided by the schools for 16 to 19’s while we provide the vocational delivery. That way the FE sector can stop being blamed for poor results and the focus put back on schools.

  2. David Scott

    The obsession with maths and English has done much to put our students off continuing their training. Many left school at 16 precisely because their forte was in the trades; so expecting FE colleges to succeed where school failed was always going to lead to demotivated students, frustrated staff and missed targets.

    Far better the system used by the Forces for decades: take in skilled tradespeople and teach them basic numeracy and literacy, with examinations for those who wish to be promoted (ie, nearly all of them). The government would do well to consider policies that encourage similar schemes in industry.

  3. Dave Greenhalf

    If a plumber comes to fit my boiler, I don’t care if she/he can identify similes, as long as she/he can read the fitting and safety instructions and has been trained in the fitting of boilers I am happy.

    We have, well the Government has, lost sight of the point of vocational training. I was a carpenter for 25 year before I slipped a disc and returned to education. Never once in those 25 year did I write a persuasive text or a formal letter for that matter. I am not saying we should not teach some of these skills but surely the main point is to enthuse the learner with the skills necessary to succeed in their chosen vocation.
    Many years ago the Basic Skills Agency outlined all of the English & maths skills required for a whole variety of occupations. This was an enlightened moment, but they was ignored and the focus on so called ‘transferable skills’ was laid down as the way to improve our youngsters. It was a mistake and it is getting worse; we need to give the youngsters skills that they understand will be required within the workplace. I love the English language and literature, but only in an educational workplace have I ever had to use, identify or work with literary techniques and terms.

  4. James Maguire

    OFSTED should focus on the maths and English skills of the bottom 10% of learners in year 11 in our schools and grade appropriately as, for the most part, these are the learners that FE has to work with. A much higher percentage of schools would then be graded as “inadequate”.

    In my opinion, no learner should be leaving school without a minimum of level 1 in functional English and maths.

  5. Fletch

    In FE for low maths ability (bottom 10% from school), I see my job as protecting learners from getting into debt later in life, understanding topics like percentages do they don’t buy goods at £2 per per week which cost 5x the cost on the long run; working out budgets so they can distinguish between what they need and what they want etc. This is the important life stuff they need to know. Unfortunately instead I have to deliver trigonometry and algebra. Can we just have a better qualification to teach these GCSE Grade Ds which makes more sense to them, and accept these students may not need a Grade C to become a plumber. Please go back to the schools where the root cause can be addressed. FE is being used as a punch bag when it is not our fault.