Ian Nash grades Chief Inspector’s annual report ‘unsatisfactory’

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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 He says: ‘The annual report no longer represents a “state of the nation” view of provision, but rather a snapshot of inspections that are now triggered by a risk-based approach.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.)

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