Hard evidence, not anecdote, please, Chief Inspector

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Policy Consortium member Ian Nash reflects on Sir Michael Wilshaw’s recent remarks about FE and points to the need for those in positions of influence to have regard for the evidence.

Why should Suffolk colleges hand over hundreds of post-16 students to Lowestoft school sixth forms when four out of five schools there are in special measures? The same question could be asked in many towns and regions across England.

While Lowestoft College may ‘require improvement’, according to an Ofsted report of 2013, steady progress is now being made. Meanwhile, much FE provision across the county is ‘outstanding’ and thus in many cases, arguably, superior to nearby schools.

Travel 140 miles south-west from Suffolk to London and you might expect the debate to be more clear-cut. The London Challenge launched by Labour in 2003 was so successful that record numbers of 16-year-olds now stay on in school sixth forms after getting a fistful of GCSEs at grades  A*-C. However, when it comes to making A-level choices, too many students founder, and do so for multiple reasons. Careers education is inadequate; vocational education is lacking; subjects pursued are often inappropriate; and sixth forms are too small to provide full choice. Students hit a brick wall. Colleges are then left to clean up the mess.

None of this was addressed in Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw’s disparaging pre-Easter remarks about further education, when he suggested all 16 to 19-year-olds should be in school.

Nor could a subsequent Policy Consortium investigation find any substantial evidence to support his remarks – which, in any case, were readily dismissed by Skills Minister Nick Boles at the Commons Education Select Committee. He said: “…not only do I disagree with him, not only does David Cameron disagree with him, I actually think Michael disagrees with himself.”

Even Wilshaw’s own press office refused to offer evidence to support him. A spokesperson for the education watchdog had previously said that Sir Michael’s comments “were clearly his personal opinion” and that they had nothing more to add. To add to the case against Wilshaw, Mark Dawe used his maiden speech as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) CEO-elect to say that Wilshaw “needs to retire before he does any more damage to our education system and the economic well-being of this country.”

While no-one pretends FE is anywhere near perfect, Wilshaw’s refusal to back his remarks with evidence leaves him looking at best unprofessional and at worst mendacious. There is after all considerable evidence either in support of colleges as a destination of choice or that raise questions about sixth forms. This evidence centres on at least seven issues:

  • the breadth of choice FE colleges offer compared with school sixth forms
  • overall Ofsted grades and the relative performance of colleges – given the number of schools with sixth forms in need of improvement, would a responsible college really stop taking students?;
  • employer satisfaction rates (from UKCES) with college-leavers, at 71%, as  compared with school counterparts, at 61%;
  • the poor patterns of University Technical College recruitment which, nationally, is at least 40 per cent down on target – despite Wilshaw talking up UTCs, FE colleges are still a preferred destination;
  • the lack of separate grades for school sixth forms, with which to make fair and meaningful comparisons and to challenge ill-founded assumptions;
  • the high degree of churn in sixth-forms, particularly in London, with colleges coming to the rescue;
  • and criticisms from Baroness Professor Alison Wolf herself that school sixth forms are too ill-equipped and badly-staffed to offer the technical education that colleges do well. The Coalition government’s cherry-picking of Professor Wolf’s review of 14-19 qualifications has damaged post-16 provision.

Why does the negative commentary from Wilshaw matter? Shouldn’t it just be left to fade away? After all, to adapt broadcaster Robin Day’s words to Defence Secretary John Nott in a TV interview during the Falklands war in 2002, “Why should we heed the words of a [soon-to-be] ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, official?” Wilshaw retires in December, remember, if indeed he is not put out to grass earlier than that.

It matters for the simple reason that ministers take much policy steer from the Ofsted boss – however flippant Boles was over his FE remarks – and often use such views to underpin ideological-based assertions where educational arguments fail for lack of genuine evidence.

Two pressing areas where this has become only too obvious very recently are the planned mass academisation of schools, and the decision to cease grading TLA (teaching, learning and assessment) when inspectors assess performance.

First, the academisation drive now includes the idea that strong schools taking over weak ones would be accompanied by a long moratorium on inspection grades and reports, to “allow room with reduced pressure”. If this comes off, there will be a long period before we have valid data with which to compare any schools in such an academy take-over situation with colleges.

This raises further questions around the current Area-Based Reviews and the desire of ministers to see mergers and the creation of bigger colleges. Will a similar moratorium apply in FE and the general drive to deal with apparently under-performing colleges? Or is this exclusively about forcing all schools down the academy route, regardless of the educational merits?

Second, there is the plan to cease the separate grading by inspectors of teaching, learning and assessment (TLA), with a concomitant increased emphasis on outcomes-related data rather than observation during inspections. College principals, managers and staff told the Policy Consortium that they welcome this – but provided that college inspections are mirrored by the same approach in schools. This raises questions about what data is collected on what topics, with what degrees of reliability, comparability and impact.

Past performance here does not bode well, rather ironically. Ofsted can always argue that inspections are based on policy set out by the government departments – but are they making consistent decisions across each of their remits in the complex and multi-layered world of education, training and skills? Numerous bodies including the Association of Colleges, teacher unions, provider organisations and university researchers argue that they do not. Martin Doel, AoC chief executive, summed up such concerns, saying: “When it comes to proper comparability, Ofsted is neither consistent nor fair in judgment.”

The Government’s own evidence underlines his point. For example, DFE data on class size recently highlighted how small group-size sixth-forms perform worse, on average, than oversized ones. This led to a review of class-size criteria last year. In schools, but not colleges, small sixth-forms are often subsidised by protected pre-16 budgets. In some cases, too, the lower-school Peter is robbed in order to pay the sixth-form Paul.

Similarly, as the AoC points out, despite the hype for UTCs from the Government and Wilshaw, it is still too early to say how well they perform. There have been few inspections of UTCs and they are still in the experimental stage.

When it comes to the question of which institutions serve disadvantaged learners best, colleges are clear winners, as recent research for BIS by the University of Greenwich shows  (http://www.gre.ac.uk/eduhea/research/groups/cle/research/hiveped). Data on social mobility shows that it is FE that does the heavy lifting. This is most pronounced in London where higher achievement leads too often to narrow post-16 choice. That’s fine if you want an academic route, say the authors; but for the vocationally-inclined learner, it is “inappropriate”. In addition to their exemplary work with the mainstream of both vocational and academic learners, colleges play a specially-important role for disadvantaged students left behind by schooling.

Finally, on the issue of careers and destinations, Wilshaw’s assumptions in favour of schools are based on little of substance. The only inspection evidence base he has is the 2013 Ofsted report on careers guidance in schools, where three out of four schools surveyed “were not implementing their duty to provide impartial careers advice effectively”.

The priority now has to be to move on from the realms of wild anecdote and ask as a nation how fairly we support the 844,000 16 to 19-year-olds who choose to go to FE college. This is an issue that matters more than – and will outlast – any ‘here-today, gone-tomorrow’ individual appointed as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

Ian Nash is a freelance journalist, member of the Policy Consortium and partner in the media group Nash&Jones Partnership

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