Key FE figures have spoken out in defence of the sector following a scathing attack by Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills.

During a speech on Monday (January 19) for thinktank CentreForum, the education watchdog’s chief inspector accused the sector of being “inadequate at best” and criticised the sector for offering “uniformly weak” careers advice.

“It is a real pity that Sir Michael chooses to use such outdated and incorrect language to describe the education and training provided by FE colleges,” said Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

Far from being the “large, impersonal and amorphous” institutions failing to deliver “high-quality vocational education” that Sir Michael referred to in his speech, Mr Doel said that FE colleges “provide excellent pastoral support, work hard to ensure that all students are supported to help them succeed and advance their valuable employability skills and develop their career opportunities”.

Martin Doel
Martin Doel
Dr Sue Pember

Dr Sue Pember, director of policy and external relations at Holex and FE Week agony aunt, said that, while Sir Michael was “right to draw attention to vocational education” the sector should not be held responsible when government changes to the education system fail.

“Colleges and providers have been the pawns in these policy changes and really can’t be blamed if the systems that governments have advocated don’t actually succeed,” she said.

“What vocational education and training in England needs is policy stability and sustainable funding.”

In response to Sir Michael’s comment that 16 to 19 study programmes have “yet to make an impact” on maths and English GCSE pass rates, Dr Pember said it was “unrealistic to think that any college can turn round 6 to 10 years of poor schooling”.

“We need to put the emphasis on getting it right in secondary school,” she said.

Malcolm Trobe
Malcolm Trobe
Sally Hunt
Sally Hunt

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said that FE colleges should be “celebrated” for the “enormous contribution” they make to meeting the needs of learners and employers.

“They are doing extremely good work under circumstances in which they have received horrendous budget cuts,” he said.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), agreed with Sir Michael’s call for better careers advice for college students, but warned that providing it “will require proper investment”.

She added: “Sir Michael is wrong to dismiss further education colleges as simply having failed the pupils that struggled academically at his schools.

“All young people deserve access to the best education that most suits their needs.”

During his speech Sir Michael also outlined his vision for what he called “federations” of schools, which would include university technical colleges “that would admit youngsters across the ability range to focus on apprenticeships at levels four, three and two”.

“It would not be a dumping ground for the disaffected and cater just for the lower-ability youngsters,” he said.



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  1. Sir Michael is so out of touch with reality it is worrying and embarrassing. This does nothing for the on-going credibility of Ofsted – an organisation that I once respected but sadly no more. It’s time he moved on methinks.

  2. FE Lecturer

    OFSTED is currently the most destructive and negative force influencing further education.
    Sir Michael has been critical of FE but offers no solutions or useful advice and does not even recognise the damage caused by funding cuts.
    If the government had any sense they would limit further destruction to FE by removing OFSTED from it. SMT and Managers could then focus on running the college instead of trying to please OFSTED and their latest whims. The funding cuts show the government have little common sense and do not realise that vocational training is essential for improving productivity across a whole range of sectors – one of their key aims!

  3. FE supporter

    Another broad comment from something that feels like a developing ideology that is hell bent on destroying our FE infrastructure that continually has to deal with young people who have been let down by an school sector.

    Wow they say ignorance is bliss. Yeah it must be from the ivory towers where this damaging ideology is being hatched and peddled!!

    Good job!!!

  4. Paul Wyles

    I presume Sir Michael can read and will therefore know from Ofsted’s reports that his comments are untrue. He has brought Ofsted into disripute and undermined the credibility of future inspections. Time for him to go.

  5. ‘What vocational education and training in England needs is policy stability and sustainable funding’ – Dr Pember summarises the issues facing FE perfectly, & Proves herself far more informed than Sir Michael.

  6. In December The JGA Group went through an Ofsted inspection. We passed, but whether we had passed or failed we are a much better provider for having been through the process of preparation. Of course there are niggles but generally speaking Ofsted plays a unique role in holding the sector to account.

    • Richard, have you not read what the Ofsted Chief Inspector has said? He has ignored the evidence that has come from inspections in his whole period of office (including your ‘good’ inspection and supposedly HIS last three annual reports) and said ‘The FE sector is “inadequate at best” ‘
      As part of that sector you are lumped in with all the outstanding, good, requires improvement and handful of inadequate providers and colleges. As this is clearly inaccurate from all the evidence that is available publicly, hopefully he will be held to account by someone in government for views that say far more about himself then they do a sector that gives thousands who have often been let down by schools, a second chance.