Reading the headline messages in Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw’s annual report, it is easy to be misled into thinking there are no outstanding colleges inEngland.
‘For the second year running, Ofsted did not judge a single college to be outstanding for teaching and learning,’ the media release accompanying the Ofsted report suggests. Such statements disregard the fact that under light-touch arrangements only 56 out of 341 colleges were inspected and that visits were skewed towards poorer performers.
Nor, reading the report, would one realise that the inspection goalposts were shifted, with last year’s ‘satisfactory‘ grades effectively reclassified ‘unsatisfactory‘. Moreover, colleges that were already outstanding in teaching and learning would not have been inspected in the last two years.
Irritation with the report throughout the FE sector is clearly expressed in the response from Martin Doel, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges. He says: ‘The annual report no longer represents a “state of the nation” view of provision, but rather a snapshot of inspections that are now triggered by a risk-based approach. By definition this is skewed towards more negative results.’
Sir Michael goes on to say too much emphasis was placed on attracting young people to popular, often low-level, courses that were of little value to employers. With success rates in functional skills currently low (47% for English and 55% for maths), he says, these are among the weakest areas in the learning and skills sector and should be given top priority.
‘The learning and skills sector needs re-orientating towards a moral determination to provide high quality and relevant provision, which should include reputable Apprenticeship opportunities for young people,‘ he says.
Again, Doel finds it necessary to put the record straight. ‘Colleges do deliver the skills employers want and to criticise some for their range of provision risks missing several points: the interests and ambitions of students play a significant role in the choices they make; those choices are often determined by school information and guidance; the subjects people study are not the sole indicator of career path – we don’t expect young people who have undertaken a GCSE in Geography to go on and have a career in geography.’
No one is suggesting colleges are without fault. Ann-Marie Warrender, research, development and publishing consultant, says: ‘There is always room for improvement in the way learning provision is managed and delivered, but beating up FE (yet again) is not helpful and will neither motivate nor inspire anyone to “get better”. Success is usually what really breeds further success.’
Mick Fletcher, researcher and consultant specialising in the planning and funding of post-14 learning, cautions against ‘Ofsted bashing‘, since the inspectorate is not entirely a politically free agent. ‘Most of its comments are in fact about system failure; government gives the wrong incentives, etc., and hence the public bashing of colleges is a cover for a message to insiders that their policy has been a disaster.’
Nevertheless, significant discrepancies that have already provoked anger among college leaders need to be addressed. Mike Cooper, FE consultant, points to some deep and serious anomalies in the report, particularly on teaching and learning. ‘Ofsted has only explicitly judged and graded “quality of teaching, learning and assessment”as of this term, through the newly revised Common Inspection Framework (CIF), effective as of 1 September,’ he says.
Although teaching and learning was always a central feature of inspections, under the last Common Inspection Framework (CIF)there was no specific grade given for it. So the claims Sir Michael makes in this regard come over as ‘disingenuous’if not ‘inaccurate‘,he suggests. ‘The first pilot no-notice inspection took place in March 2012, and was widely trumpeted by all concerned – Exeter College was judged “Outstanding” overall, and under the terms of the new CIF that cannot be the case unless teaching and learning is outstanding in itself.Eastleigh College also got an Outstanding result from its inspection in May.’
There are similar concerns over the way Sir Michael holds up schools as beacons by comparison: ‘Schools have seen their increased freedoms balanced by a strong accountability system and action on failure. The same should be true for colleges.’
But Sally Faraday, an independent consultant specialising in research and development in education,suggests the handling of evidence by Sir Michael and his team looks unfortunately like ‘wilful presentation of data to mislead’.
‘Let’s just rewrite the press release a little by using the exact wording and data, but in reverse: three years ago 33% of all schools were judged less than good. That figure is now 30%. And 65% of colleges are now good or better compared to 70% at the end of 2010. Is it really so much different? So schools have just reached the point that FE was at in 2010.’
Given so many assurances from ministers that this was a government committed to evidence-based policy and not the opposite, such misleading representation of the facts is deeply worrying, says Seb Schmoller, former Chief Executive of the Association for Learning Technology and a member of the Policy Consortium. ‘Michael Wilshaw may have a strong moral compass, but the Ofsted annual report is bad science.’
Andrew Morris, a consultant in education research, policy and practice, says that work he is doing interviewing students in a largeLondoncollege makes a point fundamentally missed by Sir Michael in his narrow perspective.
Students tell him how college has transformed their lives, the very students starting on entry-level courses and other supposedly low-level programmes. ‘Low level need not mean low aspiration: good guidance ensures students start on a course they can succeed in, whatever the level,and are inspired toprogress in manageable steps towards employability. Provision is staged carefully to support this,’ he says.
‘This is what a typical interviewee – an Entry level Maths/writing student – said: “This was the first time in my life I am doing something for me … A really fantastic social atmosphere in the class … A lot of fun to come in … My little bit of sanity … I can go home and help my kids with their homework. Before I couldn’t help them with anything. I learn and then I teach them. My kids can see I am doing something. I tell them how important studying is … Next year I am planning to do an Access course to go on to do Science.” This, I think is the real measure of the moral compass to which colleges in my experience aspire,’adds Morris.
That is not to say the sector at large views FE performance and achievement with complacency. Penny Lamb, Head of Policy of Development at NIACE, says: ‘There is much for the sector to reflect on in this report. Local accountability, governance, quality and relevance are issues of prime importance to all providers as they negotiate the changing world of skills and employment on behalf of their learners. Concerted action is needed now as there are far too many adults not getting the quality provision they deserve.’
Marilyn Hawkins, Chair of the 157 Group, said there could be no excuses: ‘Where performance has deteriorated, then we are as keen as Ofsted to do what we can to ensure it can improve again through a clear focus on teaching and learning standards. The figure does also reflect, though, the fact that the work of colleges is immensely broad and cannot all be judged in a simple fashion.’
(*Mike Cooper, Sally Faraday, Mick Fletcher, Andrew Morris, Seb Schmoller and Ann-Marie Warrender are all members of the Policy Consortium.)
Why the sudden rush? When further education leaders put flesh on the bones of former FE and Skills minister John Hayes’ idea of a guild for the sector, they found compelling arguments to support it. But it couldn’t and shouldn’t happen overnight, they suggested.
Martin Doel, the Association of Colleges’ Chief Executive, had thought through the proposal with some care. He concluded: ‘The Guild represents the reincorporation of colleges, but with a significant culture change away from their being directed bodies to becoming institutions that take charge of their own futures. That’s got to be a three-year journey if you really want to achieve.’
So, why the sudden decision by the Government (one which took most people by surprise)to hurry the reforms and have the new guild operational by 1 August 2013 – fewer than nine months away? Will anything be gained, or lost,by the haste?
One key to the increased pace lies in Lord Lingfield’s review of professionalism in FE, which reported in October. The review group further developed the notion of the FE Guild, which was then accepted by Matthew Hancock, who succeeded Hayes as minister. There are, however, fundamental differences in its scope and remit, and apparent downgrading with official documents using the lower-case ‘g’ in guild.
Hayes saw the guild havingcharter-awarding powers as a mark of excellence for colleges and other providers. Now, this will be dealt with separately; nor will the guild play a part in ‘intervention’ relating to inspection and quality. Also, since 2010, ‘skills for growth’ has dominated the agenda. This is reflected in Lingfield’s recommendations that colleges abandon their remedial role, focus on technical and economic, not social, issues and align themselves far more seamlessly with HE, with suggestions that FE (other than sixth-form colleges) moves away from academic provision.
The second key to the hurried timetable is the wave of looming further austerity cuts which, coupled with the more utilitarian Lingfield vision, suggests a considerable narrowing of FE’s remit. True, the plan remains to free colleges and training providers from the shackles of governmentand allow institutional autonomy through the mediation of a ‘sector-owned, sector-managed‘ body. But that could be simply because ministers don’t want to take any flak if austerity measures and the new steer for FE fail. David Sherlock, a member of the Lingfield review group, indicatedthis in his latest Beyond Standardsblog. He writes that the government, in transferring the financing of adult learning from state grants to personal or employer loans, must ‘accept that if there was to be less financial power wielded by government there had better be less interference too’. We shall see.
Last month, Hancock said the Association of Colleges (AoC) and Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)would ‘take forward‘ plans for a single body(the FE guild) to set professional standards andcodes of behaviour, as well as developqualifications.The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills(BIS) is giving AoC, as the lead body for the guild proposals, £360,000 for planning until March. The proposal garnered, possibly unprecedentedly, unanimous (albeit somewhat hesitant) support across the sector – employers, professional associations and unions – and a steering group chaired by chief executive David Hughes was established in early November.
Then, the following Friday, the Government foot was firmly on the accelerator as Susan Pember, Director, FE and Skills at BIS, told Dame Ruth Silver, chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), the guild would be ‘operational’ by August, when funding for LSIS would cease.
A key organisation created by the last Labour government to lead improvement in further education, LSIS looks like being the first victim of the Coalition government’s decisions around the guild. Ms Pember wrote: ‘The new guild organisation will assume responsibility for many of the broad areas of activity currently undertaken by LSIS, albeit probably in a different form. This clearly calls into question the future of LSIS as a separate entity and has major implications for its current staff.’
Only a proportion of LSIS’s current £31m core government funding will transfer to the guild since significant cuts were coming anyway. Remember, two years ago its budget was slashed from £145m to £48m. And while LSIS chiefs will have some influence on the guild’s steering group over the transfer of activities, it is questionable how much of the frontline teacher involvement in research and development and other work, aimed at improving teaching and learning, will still be funded. There are fears within the organisation and the teachers and lecturers LSIS funds that this will be sacrificed.
What is unclear amid all these developments is whether the FE guild really represents a permanent sea-change or just another swing of the long pendulum, currently in favour of the skills lobby and sector employers. While there may be unprecedented support, this may reflect no more than the kinds of attitudes underlying the University and College Union position:‘We are supporting it because it is the only show in town and we think we can help shape it,’ said Dan Taubman, National Officer.
Also, this is far from the first time that ministers have promised the sector such autonomy. When LSIS was created in October 2008 the minister, John Denham, told Ruth Silver it would be ‘a sector-owned improvement body and focal point for enabling innovation’. He told journalists there would be ‘no political interference from here on’.As if.
And, as Maria Hughes, consultant with the Policy Consortium, suggests: “If they really want to set up something radically different the timescale is crazy. It is highly likely that the time-table will slip, leading to inertia and uncertainty, and it would be better to have a more sensible and realistic start date. Or is the whole thing a very useful way to cut budgets and lose public sector staff?’
Her comments echo the frustrations of many who, like her, had the same ‘bitter experience‘ of this in the move from the Further Education Unit to the FE Development Agency back in 1995. Successive reforms, tinkering and policy shifts resulted in a succession of agencies such as the Quality Improvement Agency and Centre for Excellence in Leadership, each of which wascreated withthe pledge that it was owned by the sector and would suffer no further political interference – that is, until the next time or new ministerial whim.
The safe distancing of government from the effects of policy reform and austerity cuts is increasingly common, as Mick Fletcher, researcher and Policy Consortium member, points out:‘We see precedents in local government and Scotland. It is a new fashion in public policy.’
The accelerated move to create the guild as a single body to set professional standards and codes of behaviour highlights the difficult choices facing FE leaders in a new round of austerity cuts. The question is whether the sector will be left to its own devices and given time to make it work or whether rushed policy reform will lead to accusations of austerity measures implemented too far too fast.
Andrew Morris summarises a recent talk at the House of Commons by Dr Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at the Ministry of Education in Helsinki.
“Back in 1970 Finland was not a high-performing country; it ranked well below the OECD average and even further below the UK. But in that same year a huge problem of inequity was identified and understood as the underlying cause of multiple social problems. Reducing it became a political priority.”
”Over the following forty years Finland’s educational performance has risen steadily, exceeding the OECD average during the 1990s and rising subsequently to the top. Over the same period the OECD average itself has gradually risen while the performance of England (and other countries) has actually fallen. The cause is clearly attributed by Sahlberg to Finland’s pursuit of different policies, not simply to better implementation of similar policies. The key policy driver was an attack on inequity itself…”
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Ian Nash writes:
Following David Cameron’s pledge this week to rip-up employment red tape in the name of better delivery, where does this leave the promises, in Lord Lingfield’s interim report on professionalism in FE, to maintain teaching standards in colleges and training organisations?
Click here for the full think-piece.
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Sally Faraday and Carole Overton consider Vocational teaching and training – is there a better route to improving learning?
New research into effective teaching/training and learning suggests that differences between ways of promoting academic and vocational learning are exaggerated and that the same good practice characteristics are to be found in both.
What are your thoughts? Let us know via the comment box below.
This month, Ian Nash looks at the ‘State of confusion’ – the world of FE as seen by the media
“Everyone knows what a further education college is. Or do they? When 1,000 members of the public were asked which colleges on a given list were FE, they were very confident. And yet three-quarters (75%) got it wrong. While many people may not have the foggiest what an FE college is, it doesn’t stop the media and many of the general public slagging them off as low-standard, poor quality and a waste of time.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Feel free to share your views in the comment box below.
This month, Nick Warren considers ‘More plumbing, less pilates’ – The effects of ‘Mickey Mouse course’ accusations on the public reputation of FE/HE.
“‘Mickey Mouse courses’ at universities and in FE are the stuff of Daily Mail legend and are accusations recklessly bandied about by politicians who should know better. But why don’t they know better? And how is the public reputation of FE/HE affected by such claims?”
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Feel free to share your views in the comment box below.
For this month’s think-piece, Peter Davies, Mick Fletcher and Maggie Greenwood look at HE in FE colleges under the new fees regime – a cloud with a silver lining?
“The arrangements that are being put in place by the Coalition Government for the 2012-13 intake of students represent the most radical change in HE funding for many years. The authors believe that these widely contested reforms offer substantial opportunities for for further education colleges that are significant providers of HEFCE-funded higher education, and their students. However, there are also considerable threats if these opportunities are ignored or pursued insensitively.”
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For this month’s think-piece, Ian Nash asks Big Society or Big Business? Is there a future for the voluntary sector?.
“Thousands of charities, voluntary organisations and small private bodies dependent on state funding are being forced to lower their ambitions or close down, undermining the Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for the volunteer-driven Big Society.
The evidence from inquiries by the Policy consortium suggests three main causes:
• First, cuts draconian cuts are being imposed by cash-strapped local authorities facing 28% cuts from central government over four years;
• Second, central government schemes and minimum contract levels currently at £500,000 exclude smaller organisations;
• Third, colleges and other providers are delaying plans for tendering and bidding for work because of delays in the clarification and introduction of new funding arrangements.”
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For this month’s thinkpiece, Mike Cooper considers Emerging from the Inspection pit .
“What difference would it make if we ditched Ofsted? To providers and the sector? To the nation and its learners? As we look around in the age of austerity for inessential services to trim or even scrap, the question is being asked more and more. Do we need the service any longer? Haven’t we become mature enough and learned enough about educational improvement since the creation of Ofsted simply to do without it?”
What do you think? Get involved in the conversation – add your thoughts below.