Ofsted last week unveiled a new five-year strategy with two key areas of focus for FE: to review that it has the right inspection model given the “complexity and diversity” of the sector, and to assess all colleges on how well they meet local skills needs.
So what changes can providers expect to see when Ofsted comes knocking? FE Week sat down with the watchdog’s deputy director for FE and skills Paul Joyce to find out.
Q. How will inspections differ when Ofsted assesses how well colleges meet skills needs?
A. This is something that we’ve been asked to do by the Department for Education to support the reforms detailed in the skills bill.
So from September, we will be conducting enhanced inspections of colleges. That’s going to involve inspectors evaluating the contribution the college makes to meeting skills needs. This is an extension to inspection activities already undertaken by the education inspection framework (EIF), rather than something completely new.
Inspectors are going to spend more time examining a wider range of evidence to see how well leaders and managers engage with key stakeholders and establish skills needs, and the actions they then take with their curriculum.
Q. What new evidence will inspectors look at, and will this result in a separate judgment in reports?
A. Expectations will increase over time. You’ll be aware of things like local skills improvement plans (LSIPs) and accountability agreements that are mentioned in the skills bill. So we will be using things like that. And we will be speaking with a wider range of stakeholders to see how well the college meets with, talks to, understands local skills needs, and importantly, what they do to adapt their curriculum or working collaboration with other providers to address those identified skills needs.
All college inspections from September will be full inspections and we will be increasing the number of inspectors that go to those colleges by an additional two inspectors.
The skills need judgment won’t be a main EIF judgment. We will be making a worded judgment within the inspection report, and there will be a section in the report about how well the college does meet skills needs. But it won’t result in a separate report or grade.
Q. Why will independent training providers not receive skills needs assessments?
A. We’ve been asked to do this by the DfE because of the skills bill. And in the skills bill, this duty for a college to meet skills needs, the duty and legislation does only apply to colleges, sixth-form colleges and specialist designated institutions. So the duty in law does not apply to independent training providers, for example. Whether it will in the future or not is something for the government to consider.
Q. Are Ofsted inspectors best placed to judge whether a college is meeting the skills needs of the economy? Do they have the expertise?
A. That is a good point and it’s why we’ve been involved in discussions about how we do this with DfE for quite a while, and why we’ve run a number of pilots.
You are quite right to say inspectors are not economists, and it is extremely unlikely that a single college will meet all of the skills needs of an area. So we’ve been very clear to the DfE in terms of what it is possible to do through inspection and what it isn’t possible to do through inspection.
Through our piloting, the judgment that we will actually make is not whether the college is or is not meeting skills needs, but we can make a judgment about how well college leaders and managers are engaging with key stakeholders to try and understand what skills needs there are. And as a result of whatever they identify, what it is they are doing to address those skills needs.
So that’s a slightly different way of coming about it, rather than an inspector determining what the skills needs are, which we’re not able to do. What we’re looking at doing is finding out how well leaders and managers talk to people, whether they’re talking to the right stakeholders, and what they’re doing based on the information they receive, and obviously inspection and inspectors are able to do that.
Q. Ofsted’s strategy also said the watchdog will review whether it has the right model of inspection, given the “complexity and diversity of provision” in FE, and the size of some providers. FE’s complexity and diversity has been well known for years. What has changed recently for Ofsted to realise it might need to adapt its inspection model to reflect this?
A. You’re right ̶ FE has always been diverse and complex. But with the skills bill, the various qualification reforms, other things that are happening, we need to make sure our inspection model keeps pace with that.
With policies like T Levels, skills bootcamps, higher technical qualifications ̶ they’ve all been relatively recent additions to the landscape since the introduction of the EIF. This review is just to make sure that our inspection practice and reporting does keep pace with the changes.
Q. What changes are on the table?
A. The main commitment here is to review what we do, how we do it and how we report on it. That’s not to say that anything will change. I’ve got no fixed views of what needs to change. For me, this is about will it be helpful and useful to write specific things about T Levels and skills bootcamps, for example, rather than write as we do now about education programmes for young people.
Q. Campus-level inspections for large college groups have been on the cards for years – could this be introduced as part of this review?
A. Certainly, as part of the review, a look at how we inspect and report multi-sited provision will be part of that. I wouldn’t want to commit now to say that we are going to report on individual campuses. We’ll certainly want to explore whether that is something we ought to be doing.
The campus-level inspection argument really has evolved somewhat since it was first mentioned because of devolution and moves to greater local accountability. We want to make sure that however we inspect, or however we report, is the best for the user group. Whether that’s campus-level or a different response, it’s yet to be determined.
Q. The strategy is silent on areas that were thought to be priorities for the inspectorate, such as apprenticeships and prison education. Why?
A. If we were to list everything that we are going to do within the strategy, it would be a very, very long document. I assure you that whilst we specifically mentioned skills needs, apprenticeships, for example, prison education, for example, are key topics. They are woven through the different priorities in our strategy, although they may well not be mentioned by name. But there’s no deliberate omission.