Ofsted is a ‘distraction’ to be taken seriously

Don’t get bogged down in the new common inspection framework, says principal Chris Thomson. Give students the provision you’d wish upon your own children and you’ll be outstanding.  

You’ll probably think we’re mad, but for more than a decade at Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College we’ve cultivated the view that far from being a priority, inspection is a distraction.

Through four Ofsted inspections – the last in October this year – we’ve simply said to staff: “Concentrate on delivering the college mission. If we’re meeting the individual learning needs of all our students it doesn’t matter what the latest common inspection framework (CIF) says, we’ll be outstanding.”

If this sounds like quality-suicide, ask yourself two questions. Does your college mission put learners first and are you exclusively committed to that mission? If the answer to both is yes, our approach should begin to look more rational than it might at first seem.

But  no quick fixes. Even in a specialist A level sixth-form college the size of some general FE college departments, it has taken us years to develop a culture that will produce uniform high quality – and we’re not there yet.

Other colleges have accomplished it quicker. I know one that made astonishing progress through a marvellously simple instrument of change, the principal persistently asked one key question: “Is this provision good enough for our own children?”

If I can put it this way, there have been a host of strategies at the forefront of our vision, but inspection has, by comparison, constituted only the equivalent of an occasional glance in the wing mirror.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t taken it seriously. Having been inspected in 2007 and told by Ofsted last September that they would not be visiting us in 2011/12, it seemed a good bet they would drop by some time this year.

By the time term started this September, our vice-principal and college nominee Sally Bromley had prepared data packs for every department, with an action plan that would kick in the moment inspection was notified.

This made the four days’ preparation time much smoother than it would have been. Key managers worked through the weekend and the college was open to any staff who wanted to come in. We made it clear there was no expectation that they should.

Although seven inspectors arrived rather than four, as was the case in 2007, I felt the inspection went even more smoothly than it had then. One or two teachers were disconcerted by the brevity of some drop-in observations, and some intervention was needed where an inspector’s assumptions were false-footed by our way of doing things.

But our 7.30am meetings to prepare for the day’s inspection were over in barely more time than it took to devour the Danish pastries and coffee. The inspectors found it a positive experience too. At the end of the first afternoon they were already commenting on how friendly and welcoming our staff were.

Our mood was enhanced by the supportive responses our students made on Ofsted’s Learner View website. Although we didn’t manage to see how parents responded, a number emailed us directly to express thanks for our work. We passed these on.

We felt tested but well listened to. No stone was left unturned, but our inspectors ensured that their conclusions were informed by all the evidence we presented.

Enormous credit must go to Sally; it wasn’t hard to encourage teachers to be bold and risk an exciting lesson rather than play safe.

If you are fortunate to have a nominee who is tireless, meticulous and enthusiastic, the process of inspection will go as smoothly as the college’s culture permits. As to whether that culture is best enhanced by focusing on Ofsted and the CIF, I am doubtful — but I’m reserving the right to change my mind if our grades change between now and publication.

Chris Thomson is principal of Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College

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