Ofsted should renege on its merger deal

29 Jun 2018, 11:00

“Big isn’t always beautiful” is something of an understatement coming from Ofsted in the context of FE providers.

The biggest private training provider, Learndirect, was awarded a grade four last year and in recent weeks the biggest college group, NCG, slumped to a grade three.

Despite this, the average size of colleges, far from shrinking from funding cuts, grows as under the area review programme the government flipped from resisting to encouraging mergers.

In London for example, several mega-colleges have emerged following multiple mergers, including United Colleges Group, Capital City Colleges Group and London South East Colleges.

College growth through acquisition continues around the country, often cited as a solution to the perilous state of finances and in the belief that just one more government bailout will be needed.

So you would think that Ofsted would show a particularly keen interest on what impact mergers are having on the quality of provision, on behalf of both the tax payer and FE learners.

Far from it.

In fact, as part of the area review process that ended last March they did a deal with the government, to suspend routine inspections of colleges for at least three years following a merger.

The argument for doing so was that it would give the stronger college time to turn-around the weaker college before being judged.

And it would have no doubt been a very attractive deal for colleges that could use the merger to keep Ofsted away, and convenient for Ofsted given fewer inspections mean less pressure on their shrinking budget.

But this inspection delay due to new ownership is exactly the sort of practice that the National Audit Office criticised Ofsted for over the Learndirect saga.

Due for an Ofsted inspection and want to delay it for three years? No problem, just find a merger partner.

So with Ofsted criticism of NCG fresh in our minds, now is the time for Ofsted to do their job end this deal.

In my recent interview about college mergers with Paul Joyce, the Director of FE at Ofsted, I pressed him on his “big isn’t always beautiful” response.

Surely a significant part of Ofsted’s rapidly growing research programme should already be working out how best to inspect merged colleges?

Shouldn’t inspectors be spending more rather than less time in mega-colleges?

I am sure the National Audit Office would agree with me that Ofsted should be a brake, not an accelerator, when it comes to the risk of creating colleges that are too big to fail.

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