Analysis suggests Ofsted reports fail to give a fair and balanced picture of performance in further education


By Ian Nash
Are Ofsted inspection reports still fit for purpose? Where weaknesses are indicated, do they do what is intended and create the right incentives for colleges and other providers to improve? Moreover, do the reports accurately reflect what is happening on the ground?

Analysis of recent inspection reports and remarks made in confidence to the Policy Consortium from current inspectors suggest otherwise. A number of disturbing conclusions can be drawn from this.

First, there is a mismatch between the expectations of Ofsted and the Department for Education (DFE) and for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – with those of Ofsted being too often inappropriate.

Second, and in any case, Ofsted is often judging the wrong thing.

Third, the Ofsted Overall Effectiveness grade no longer reflects the true overall effectiveness of provision.

Fourth, and related to this, single inspection reports are often used to generate more than one grade – a practice once strictly forbidden by Ofsted – and thus depressing the overall grading of a college or other provider.

Fifth, inadequate attention is paid to the highly selective nature of school sixth forms and sixth form colleges when drawing conclusions about absolute and relative performance within general FE colleges, with the inevitable consequence that GFE colleges are unfairly marked down as ‘requiring improvement’.

The picture is further mired in the complexity of multiple quality regimes with which providers have to engage. These include funding and ESF audits, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), regulation by awarding bodies and Ofqual, as well as scrutiny from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). These bodies are not singing from the same hymn sheet and the criticisms are constantly blown out of proportion.

These concerns and feedback from inspectors came as a result of a Policy Consortium challenge to Sir Michael Wilshaw, HMCI at Ofsted, over disparaging remarks he made about FE in a recent speech to Centre Forum. In the speech, he stated that: “educational provision, for the many children who do not succeed at 16 or who would prefer an alternative to higher education, is inadequate at best and non-existent at worst.” .

A number of Policy Consortium members wrote an open letter seeking clarification, since the Chief Inspector’s report (published on 1st December 2015) had reported that only 3% of General FE Colleges and 3% of independent training providers were graded as ‘inadequate’ for Overall Effectiveness at their most recent inspection.

In response, Sir Michael accepts that “the majority of GFE colleges and independent training providers in England are judged by Ofsted to be good or better”. Disappointingly, however, he stands by his earlier assertions (see Sir Michael’s letter). This is a problem, as Policy Consortium member Mick Fletcher pointed out in a further reply, because: “‘Many young people can refer to the minority in inadequate provision, and correctly so; but ‘the many children”, unambiguously refers to an entire sector” .

And the problem is that this assumption made against the entire sector permeates Ofsted’s interpretation of inspection, one inspector told the Policy Consortium.  For example, inspectors were recently challenged by Ofsted on why they graded Personal Development, Behaviour and Welfare (PDBW) more leniently than other grades. They gave PDBW 72% good or better compared with 55% for Overall Effectiveness.

The Ofsted assumption was that they were being ‘soft’ on this grade. But close examination of the statistics showed that not only did Ofsted have unrealistic expectations when judging how well the learners had done, but that they were being more ambitious than BIS required. English, maths and work experience were in effect being used as limiting grades, pulling down the Overall Effectiveness grade.

“We are not being too soft on PDBW; we’re being overly hard on Overall Effectiveness,” said one inspector. Another commented, “Ofsted is right to challenge inspectors’ grading where appropriate; but they set the bar far higher than is necessary, unjustly penalising colleges and other providers.”

The mismatch between DFE and Ofsted expectation goes to the heart of the problem, they say. Nowhere is this more apparent than in inspection observations around English, maths and work experience in Study Programmes. These programmes allow for more freedoms and flexibilities to enable learners to access individualised provision to meet their specific needs and support their progression.  This is welcomed by colleges, since a clear opportunity is there to make sure students are employable when leaving college.

Again, Ofsted shows unrealistic expectations. In the case of one college, it was said that too few students currently had work experience as part of their Study Programme and that appropriate work-related activity, including external work experience, was still to be introduced. The inspection took place at the beginning of October. “Sorting out work experience for every learner is surely not the priority of the first four weeks of term,” commented an inspector.

Latest DFE guidance does tighten up things a little around work experience and the question of the most appropriate qualifications; but there are still tensions. For example, the latest guidance says that funding is no longer linked to rates and students can go for “more challenging qualifications without fear of failure”. The DFE says further that all providers “must meet robust minimum standards, with financial penalties…for those failing to meet them.”

“This, of course, is ridiculous,” one inspector commented. “If success rates for English and/or maths are low, the provider is unlikely to be anything but RI.”

Another inspector suggested Sir Michael was looking at the college as though it controls everything inside it. “He doesn’t seem to understand the dynamics of the circumstances and external relationships that should actually be seen as the strengths of a college.”

A further point raised by inspectors was: “It is the ‘improving learners’ employability skills’ that’s the important bit, not the number that happened to go out on work experience. Ofsted is judging the wrong thing.” This again shows a mismatch between the expectations of Ofsted and BIS, leading to frustration and not a little irritation among many inspectors, as well of course as more widely.

A growing practice within Ofsted that has created much ire is the extraction of two grades from a single inspection report, as with the 2014 report on Stafford College. The Ofsted report in 2013 showed five areas as ‘requiring improvement’ (‘RI’) and one as ‘good’. A subsequent report in 2014 showed two areas with ‘RI’ grades, four ‘good’ and one ‘outstanding’. A much-improved position, surely? But along came the English and maths agenda. So, in 2014, despite the fabulous impact the college had achieved, all aspect grades were again, unbelievably, ‘RI’.

The list of grades in the report shows Accounting and Finance as ‘RI’, and Business Management as ‘RI’. So, including the Foundation Maths, this appears to make three areas which are ‘RI’. However, Accounting, Finance and Business Management were inspected by one inspector, and only one report was produced to cover this aspect of provision. An Ofsted rule is that if you want two grades you have to write two reports. What happened on this occasion?

When you look at the detail in the Accounting, Finance and Business Management report, you start to see the picture: “Teaching, learning and assessment require improvement. Although they are effective in ensuring students achieve well on their main vocational programmes, they are less effective at expanding students’ understanding of wider business contexts as part of study programmes which include the development of English, mathematics and employability skills.”

Around 2004, the law on safeguarding changed, requiring education providers to put certain safeguards in place. Many failed to do so, however, and in 2009, inspection changes made safeguarding a limiting grade. It worked; within six months, everyone was dotting the ‘i’s and crossing their fingers. So if it worked for safeguarding in 2009, why shouldn’t it work for English and maths in 2015? It would, that is, if only the solving of the endemic issue of poor English and maths provision was, first, just a question of compliance to a set of procedures and, second, an issue caused by the FE providers themselves. Again, we see unrealistic Ofsted demands and expectation, out of kilter with other government departments.

One inspector commented: “I fully agree that English and maths success rates are not high enough. The data clearly shows, however, that it is a sector-wide issue, requiring a sector-wide solution – and the root cause, of course, is failure in schools.” Since the requirement is for every 16-year-old lacking GCSE A*-C to gain the grade at college, life is much tougher for all. But, since almost 50% of all students fail to achieve a Grade C at age 16 in these subjects, it is accepted that they can take Functional Skills qualifications as ‘interim’ or ‘stepping-stone’ qualifications on the journey towards achievement of a GCSE at the higher grades.

There is no merit in vilifying every provider, particularly as a change in the law has made the numbers of learners taking these subjects increase so dramatically. And of course there has yet to be a successful strategy for encouraging more English and maths teachers into the sector. If anything, Wilshaw’s legacy might well be to put record numbers off even considering such teaching as an option.

In his reply to the Chief Inspector, Mick Fletcher concludes that “not just the FE sector, but England as a whole deserves better of its Chief Inspector.  At the very least it deserves someone with a better command of the English language. On the more likely interpretation, it deserves someone better able to put evidence before the prejudice against the FE sector that suffuses the higher reaches of the educational establishment.”


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