Poor inspection grades at colleges already suspected of performing badly are hiding a general downward trend in results, chief college inspector Mike Davis has told FE Week.

The principal officer for FE colleges at Her Majesty’s Inspectorate said that a range of issues that kept cropping up were affecting results.

He conceded colleges considered at risk of lower grades were being targeted which skewed overall results.

But Mr Davis said their lower grades were also being reflected across the board.

“There are issues — I understand and accept that — about it not being a proportionate sample because of risk assessment meaning that we look at a higher proportion of those of concern,” he said at an LSIS conference on college performance.

“But the general sense is that of those that we’re inspecting, the movement is not in the right direction.”

Mr Davis also revealed how the Skills Funding Agency’s £30m student satisfaction website, FE Choices, was seen as carrying irrelevant information in light of Ofsted’s new competitor website, Learner View.

“The data that is in FE Choices is often many years out-of-date by the time of publication, so it is not necessarily relevant for that cohort of learners,” said Mr Davis.

The general sense is that of those that we’re inspecting, the movement is not in the right direction”

“It doesn’t cover all of the providers. Sixth-form colleges, for instance, are excluded.”

He was addressing the Birmingham conference on September 19, giving a taster of the findings in Ofsted’s How Colleges Improve report, due out shortly.

“The overriding message for organisations — whether they maintained high standards, moved forwards, or wobbled around in terms of quality and standards — was that the importance and impact of outstanding leadership and management cannot be underestimated in how colleges improve,” said Mr Davis.

“All the elements in the report are inextricably linked to the actions and behaviours of leaders and managers.”

He added: “Themes that come through are complacency, a lack of ambition, direction and vision from the top.

“Governors who did not set clear institutional targets or monitor performance well enough, they were quite restrained in terms of their understanding of their role and what their expectation of the college.

“Therefore they monitored too narrowly and in some instances they allowed the senior management or leaders to effectively tell them what their targets should be.

“Again on inspection in many of these organisations there’s a defensive and inward-looking approach to management. They are organisations which look inward rather than outward.”

Mr Davis said he wanted to see good teaching take precedence over issues such as finance and buildings.

“Leaders and managers are too focused on finance and, or buildings to the detriment of the promotion of good teaching and learning, or the development of the curriculum,” he said.

“Now we go to organisations sometimes where say that it’s been really difficult. I know it’s been difficult in the sector — I worked in the sector for a long time and it has been very difficult over the last number of years.

“But at the end of the day, the learners that are in classes or on programmes this year will not benefit from that new build, which is a year, two years down the line, and if senior managers spend a lot of time and energy looking at that to the detriment of the curriculum and the quality of the teaching they will be held accountable.”

Mr Davis added: “Management teams that were unsettled by frequent changes in personnel or too reliant on external consultants working in key roles on an extended basis.

“So you’ve got this flux going on inside the organisation, people arriving or going who don’t have particular allegiance to the college, lots of stop gaps all over the place, so everybody starts getting demotivated in terms of their role and how the whole thing fits together.

“Poorly-managed staff changes led to a loss of expertise and often were accompanied by a plethora of management initiatives that were simply not explained properly to staff.

“There is an issue where inadequate quality assurance systems extended to poor monitoring of sub-contracted work — if you’ve got an organisation that hasn’t got its own house in order in terms of quality assurance, assessment, a real clear focus on learners and driving up improvement, some of these organisations have taken the opportunity to take on numerous large subcontracted provision.”

He took on the challenge of laid down by chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who questioned whether colleges should look for opportunities abroad when they should be concentrating on local learners.

“Sir Michael is asking the question about other types of provision — surely there should be some link here between the organisation’s ability to manage its own provision well and the opportunity to expand and develop its own empire?”

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