Manufacturing giant Make UK speaks out about “unjust” cliff-edge inspections after gagging a fatal ‘inadequate’ Ofsted report that turned into a ‘good’ just nine months later…
“They were inept, inexperienced and the wrong team who didn’t know what they were doing”, Make UK chief executive Stephen Phipson says when asked to describe his company’s first of three Ofsted inspections conducted this calendar year.
“If we hadn’t fought them, we would have closed down our training division on the back of what was a wrong judgment. That is unjust. How many other private providers have closed in the past because of a wrong inspection? That has got to be the question.”
Phipson was speaking to FE Week on Wednesday, hours after Ofsted published a glowing grade two report for the manufacturing representative organisation that trains almost 1,000 apprentices.
It came months after a different inspection team visited the provider in January and planned to slam it with an ‘inadequate’ judgment, which would have likely led to the Education and Skills Funding Agency kicking Make UK out of the apprenticeship training market.
The company, formerly called the Engineering Employers’ Federation, quickly lawyered up and was granted a judicial review after spending over half a million pounds on legal fees.
FE Week understands the January inspection team accused Make UK of delaying student progress due to a lack of qualified staff, poorly run courses such as failing to provide relevant materials for welding students, and failing to offer a programme that was tailored to students’ existing abilities.
The most significant allegation made was around safeguarding, namely that there was “misogynistic behaviour”.
“That was unfounded”, Phipson said. He told FE Week Ofsted based its misogyny allegation on an interview with two female apprentices that his team felt was “leading the witness” and extrapolated the view across the whole organisation. He said that the apprentices later denied ever using the word “misogyny” and claimed they said they didn’t even know the meaning of the term.
Ofsted’s grade two report for Make UK was wholly positive. Apprentices feel “safe”, “comfortable” and are “respectful to their peers,” the report said.
It also lauded leaders for providing “high-specification industry standard tools and equipment”, and said tutors are “highly qualified” but recognised there are “challenges with the recruitment and retention of staff”.
Phipson puts the January inspection outcome down to “incompetence” rather than malice.
For example, inspectors focussed on the apprenticeship standards offered by Make UK that have the smallest numbers of learners, rather than the level 3 engineering technician apprenticeship standard which most apprentices work towards.
“The inspectors simply didn’t understand the apprenticeship standards we offer properly,” Phipson said.
“Most of the inspectors had never seen this kind of engineering environment. They were people that inspect schools at the end of the day, and this was a very different thing for them. These are not children, these are adults in a factory setting.
“They were surprised at what welding looks like, you know, surprised at the ways that you have to physically train apprentices, which we’ve always done, and got very good results from.
“It raised a lot of alarm bells. We felt like we needed to give the inspectors a week’s training on what an engineering environment is like before they come in and inspect it. There seems to be a lack of real understanding.”
Make UK “rigorously” challenged the January inspection through Ofsted’s complaints process, which the inspectorate admitted this year was “not working” and is currently being reformed, but “got nothing out of it” which forced the firm to go legal.
The company was granted a judicial review on six grounds and a hearing was scheduled for November.
Ofsted conducted a mandatory follow-up monitoring visit of Make UK in August and identified positive provision. It then, off its own back, decided to run a full reinspection of the provider in October.
The watchdog then pulled out of the judicial review hearing at the eleventh hour for an undisclosed reason.
In the weeks leading up to the court case, Phipson’s lawyers warned him he had less than a 50 per cent chance of winning, and if he managed to it would set a high precedent for further judicial reviews against the inspectorate.
So why did Ofsted back away?
FE Week understands at least one inspector has been suspended during the proceedings. But Phipson claims Make UK has no idea why Ofsted stood down, but suspects it is a tactic.
“The honest answer to that is we don’t know. Something must have happened. But they left it up until the eleventh hour before they pulled out, which I suspect is always their legal tactic.
“If you look at most private providers, they haven’t got the resources to fight a legal battle against Ofsted, it’s expensive. You have got to employ good lawyers, the first challenge you’ve got is actually getting permission from a court to have a judicial review. So that in itself, I can tell you, was a mountainous task.
“All the private providers we speak to, they’re doing 100 or 200 apprentices, there’s no way they can employ hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of lawyers. We’re in a different position, because we’re a much bigger organisation, and we weren’t going to have any of that nonsense, because that really was outrageous what they [Ofsted] did.
“So I think what they do is they try and time you out, they take you right up until the court day almost, to see if you’re in or not.”
Phipson said the reinspection team, which was completely different to the January team, was “professional, experienced and knew what they were doing”.
“We had what you would classify as probably a model Ofsted inspection experience. It was great. This is the way it should have been all the way along.”
Summarising the experience, he said the whole year has been “nerve-racking” for his team.
“It’s been mentally stressful for them. They’ve gone through three Ofsted inspections this year. Can you imagine that?”
He said the overriding issue points to the fact that Ofsted inspections are a “point in time” judgment which is “unfair”.
“You can’t do a spot check on things once every five years. The modern way of doing assessments is continually assessing performance. And Ofsted must modernise and move to a position where there’s a continuous process of checking, inspecting, and not having a negative view on it but a view to try to help people to improve.
“Ofsted should be looking for ways to assist these organisations to improve their delivery of education, not just looking for black spots on a white sheet of paper once every five years.
“For independent providers, if you get a grade four ESFA withdraws your funding. There’s not enough light that’s been shone on the plight of people that invest their own money, only to have it taken away by a three-day visit. There’s got to be a better way of doing it.”
Ofsted declined to comment.