When the new chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver, takes up the reins in the autumn, he will know that it has been a challenging year for Ofsted, and it is not only in schools where the question of it being fit for purpose has been raised.
The complaints about Ofsted’s approach may not have been so loud in the skills sector and in this respect, the inspectorate’s leadership has for several years shown a welcome propensity to listen carefully to what providers have to say. For example, providers are currently being consulted on the complaints system with the aim of it being made faster and more transparent while the introduction a shadow nominee is a positive step forward.
Even independent training provider nominees waiting for the dreaded call are entitled to annual leave and Ofsted now offers providers the opportunity to notify the inspectorate of ‘blackout dates’ when a call won’t come. Hopefully, the tales of abandoning the sun lounger just after a holiday has begun will become something of the past!
For apprenticeship providers, the involvement of employers in inspections adds to the potential stress and the intensity of inspection, with so much at stake, drives a level of pressure that benefits no one.
At the Fellowship of Inspection Nominees (FIN), we maintain close relationships with our provider members in their programme delivery to continuously improve quality, strengthening the nominee in preparation for inspection, during and post inspection. Moreover, these members recognise that continuous improvement doesn’t end after the inspection is over even if it has resulted in at least a good grade.
FIN analyses all published inspection reports in-depth to identify patterns and trends and it collects feedback from members about their experiences first-hand.
If Ofsted’s genuine aim is to raise standards and improve lives, surely a closer look needs to be taken regarding the process, the stress short notice creates for apprenticeship providers making arrangements with employers and apprentices, such as checking availability or navigating shifts, bearing in mind that smaller providers are still on two days’ notice.
Assuming Ofsted inspects and makes judgments against the set criteria of the Education Inspection Framework (EIF), then consistency is the biggest issue faced by providers.
Some inspection teams are well-organised, open-minded, fair and supportive. While they don’t give advice, they do impact positively on the provider taking the time and care to fully understand the provision. This is particularly valued by providers with complex provision being inspected by generalists who do not have specialist knowledge but are interested in finding out from learners, employers and provider staff about the specialisms.
By contrast, sadly, there is too much feedback from providers that talk about poorly managed inspections. Providers can be asked for significant changes to schedules putting the provider under extreme pressure to rearrange employer visits which can be discourteous to employers – with little or no consideration to the damage this can do to professional relationships.
An inspection team can arrive with a blinkered view, too inflexible to consider or understand a sector in which they lack experience and therefore default to generic questioning about functional skills or safeguarding, leaving learners and/or apprentices demoralised by the lack of interest or knowledge of the sector.
Scope of inspection
More recently a new worrying trend has emerged: in some cases, rare but still worrying, is the emphasis some inspection teams put on providers beyond the EIF and funding.
Is it really fair to judge providers’ quality of delivery for something they are not actually funded to deliver? For example, apprenticeship providers are being asked about how they organise and evidence their learners’ involvement in charity work.
Revisiting the EIF for apprenticeships could also look at the appropriateness of gauging physical health and active lifestyles in learners’ personal development and how far an employer provider should promote career choices outside of their own organisation.
Whether Ofsted is fit for purpose is subjective and depends on one’s stance on the issues surrounding further education, assessment, and regulatory frameworks. But it is important to periodically evaluate the effectiveness and role of Ofsted in the system.
So when the new chief inspector attends his confirmation hearing in Parliament tomorrow, he should have a clear view of the inspectorate’s purpose. This includes considering the impact its current processes have on training providers. Is this the impact it wants? is it pleased and proud of its standards and is there a consistent and fair approach nationally?