The Perils of Public Procurement


Policy Consortium member Mick Fletcher discusses some of the risks of creating a ‘pseudo-market’ in FE. This article first appeared as a blog on the NCFE website. 

Two big stories have surfaced in the FE press in recent weeks. One concerns the complex and convoluted process introduced by the ESFA to determine how public funding for those apprenticeships not covered by the levy will be allocated. Commentators and sector representatives have expressed increasing alarm fearing that colleges and other providers will be destabilised and the ultimate losers will be potential apprentices. Those not up to speed with the issue can find a good account by Nick Linford on the NCFE blog so the details are not repeated here.

The other story, which broke only recently, concerns Somerset Skills and Learning (SSL), the dominant provider of adult education in the county, which until now has offered hundreds of courses to thousands of students. After its extensive programme had been advertised, staff and students recruited and premises booked, it learned at the very last minute that its funding allocation had been cut by an astonishing 97%. I must declare an interest: I have paid fees up front to an organisation that is now threatened with bankruptcy and the need to sack hundreds of staff; it is not just my ability to learn Italian but also my hard-earned cash that is threatened.

Somerset Skills and Learning had only recently been graded Good by Ofsted so its quality was not in doubt. The apparent reason for the loss of funding is that Somerset County Council, seeking to shed itself of everything other than its inescapable statutory duties, had offloaded its adult education service into a community interest company in 2015. This meant that rather than have its grant renewed SSL was thrown into the chaotic and unpredictable procurement process run by the ESF for private providers. Like the process for non-levy apprenticeship funding this is also running dangerously late – hence the last-minute surprise.

These two cases are not the only evidence that the procurement process introduced by the ESFA is not fit for purpose. The struggling non-levy exercise is the second attempt this year to make progress on apprenticeship allocations. Earlier still there was an outcry when several well established providers failed to make it onto the register of approved organisations for apprenticeship funding, while at the same time untried outfits with no track record (and in some cases no staff and no premises) were accepted. Meanwhile many third sector providers are complaining that the procurement exercise for the Adult Education Budget risks marginalising many small organisations that have worked successfully with disadvantaged communities.

Forcing the provision of public services to be driven through bids and tenders is based on an ideological conviction that markets always produce the best outcomes; a conviction blindly adhered to in spite of growing evidence that it is not true. A bidding process centralises power in the hands of those who invite the tender and judge submissions. A procurement process that is obsessed with allowing new entrants to a market is necessarily blind to the track record of those who bid. This means that contracts will often go to those who employ the slickest bid writers rather than those who invest in high quality delivery. It unintentionally prioritises those who scent large profits to be made rather than those driven by an ideal of service; anyone who doubts this need simply look at the outcomes, not just in FE but areas such as the Work programme, the Probation Service or in prisons.

This is not to deny the benefits of competition in many services. It is however to say that the creation of a pseudo-market, where bureaucrats create convoluted processes to try to mimic real competition, carries major risks. Furthermore there is another way. It is possible to create and sustain institutions that have independent democratic oversight and a long term commitment to public service. It is possible to have staff who pursue quality because of their professional values rather than being manipulated by league tables. We know it is possible because it is what they have in other countries and indeed what we had until the market fetishists forced their ideology on areas of life where they don’t properly belong.

In a not unrelated area people are now looking at the crippling debts imposed on services by the Private Finance Initiative and asking, “How could we have been so foolish?” How much longer will it be before we feel the same about the ‘procurement’ of skills?


NCFE designs, develops and certificates NCFE and CACHE branded qualifications, apprenticeships, Functional Skills and more, with over 500 nationally accredited qualifications in NCFE’s portfolio. All are supported by NCFE’s exceptional customer service and unique, friendly approach. Last year, 340,000 learners from 2,000 educational institutions chose NCFE to move their careers forward


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Is it time for an end to personality politics and the FE sector?


14 June 2017

Tony Davis, member of the Policy Consortium asks: should the Department for Education be set free from government control?


Depending on where you draw your line in history, you could argue that we’ve been providing formal education and training for around 2500 years. During that time, countless men and women have dedicated their whole lives to perfecting the art of teaching. This art form has a continuum from the micro to the macro – from working with an individual learner to designing a nation’s whole education landscape in which that teacher works. The question is: do we now know how to do it?

While every learner is different, chaos theory might enable us to say that the types of learners we are presented with each year fall into very similar categories, from those with distinct barriers to independent learning right up to those find learning almost effortless. The skills needed to deal with all of these learners, however, are honed, not just over a lifetime, but over generations. We’ve all paid our dues. The architects of our nation’s education system, however, have not.

Since 1945, the post of Secretary of State for Education (or equivalent) has been held by 36 MPs; 20 Conservative, and 16 Labour. Undoubtedly, all had strong ideas about what was best for the FE & Skills sector at the start of their tenure. All wanted to make their mark. All wanted to change the system so that their mark could be seen. The inescapable impact is a destabilised sector that is not allowed to grow – just yoyo.

Currently, we don’t even warrant a whole minister, as Justine Greening, who has previously been tried in the departments of Transport and then International Development, is required to split her time between Education and Women and Equalities. She’s an economist. Gove was a journalist.

Are you happy with this situation? Swathes of subjects undermined by Gove. Assessment regimes changed at the drop of a hat? Policy decisions taken with no thought to the unintended consequences? Ofsted’s Chief Inspector wanting the dissolution of the FE sector? Oh, and what’s the latest hobbyhorse? Grammar schools; producing elitism and sink schools, but not in equal measure?

In 1997, Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England independence from political control. The experts were allowed to get on with the job, while simply being accountable to government. Do you think this is what should happen to Education?

The 2017 FE National Survey, run by the Policy Consortium in association with the TES, is where you can have your say. This is not a talking shop, it’s your chance to influence the whole context in which you work. We’ve had a great response so far, but would like to extend the survey deadline to the 30th of June to ensure that all parts of our varied sector have a chance to contribute. Just 15 minutes of your time could change our world.


Contact: Tony Davis

Tony Davis is a member of the Policy Consortium, a former Ofsted HMI and director of the Centre for Creative Quality Improvement.

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FE and Skills Survey 2016


The full, final report on the sector-wide 2016 survey of FE and Skills, produced by members of the Policy Consortium, explores the views of people with an interest in the FE sector on a range of relevant topics from government policy to teaching resources, curriculum change to staff morale, partnerships to inspection. The sample of 731 respondents is much the same as for the 2015 survey , with which comparisons are made. Institutional and learner funding are again the top two areas of concern.

See the full report: Survey 2016 report

A summary of key points from the report is available in this Powerpoint presentation by Mike Cooper and Nick Warren, given at the 2016 FE Week Festival of Skills. Presentation on the survey report 

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Merger: a new emotional landscape


 Mergers are happening all over the sector at the moment. In the first of a series of guest blogs Tom Jupp – former Principal of City and Islington College – reflects on his experience of creating the college out of four separate institutions and on his subsequent experience of other mergers. City and Islington College is now merging into a group structure with Westminster-Kingsway.


Make no mistake, when you step into a newly merging institution, you step into a new landscape. It’s a place where emotions run high and the weight of rationality and logic become diminished; a land where many people feel boundaries have dissolved; the future is foggy and the ground is moving under their feet. A place where people feel anxious, disorientated and experience a sense of loss and even grief. One indicator of all this is when people start saying, ’This isn’t a merger, it’s a takeover.’ Another is that anger wells to the surface quickly and inappropriately.

Two important points. Firstly, all this is normal and should be planned for as an important aspect of leadership through a merger. I certainly wasn’t ready for it and took too long to accept and work with it. It’s natural to see your role instead as one offering a firm and unwavering direction in this emotional and uncertain atmosphere; it’s tempting to tell people to be sensible or even shut up. Or, even worse, to disengage from the all this and work on organisational matters. The emotional temperature is high and this puts extra pressure on the leaders as well, but it cannot be ignored. Everyone is also looking for effective and strong leadership which they can trust.

Secondly, the leadership agenda in a merger is, for many, the problem and not the solution. The senior management agenda is about things like  setting up group-wide business support services; establish a group management structure; saving money; examining curriculum areas; reducing buildings: and all this in the context of a very uncertain future for FE. The problem is that this urgent organisational agenda for management is perceived by many as only having arisen because of the merger. You can argue much would have had to happen anyway, but lots of people don’t ‘feel’ this is really true.

There are a lot of things which need to be done urgently as a new college. But the trust required to do them has to be earned in a sceptical atmosphere. Leadership in this context calls for a lot of emotional intelligence, which I didn’t always show. I needed to think deeply and articulate the educational purposes for which I wanted to do this job. But you mustn’t do this on your own; you need to articulate these educational purposes in collaboration with other people who are positive about the new opportunities and, in the process, build a leadership team. The purposes of the new Group mergers are likely to be simple: to give students across the colleges a uniformly high quality experience; to develop and expand specialisms and to preserve the pluralism of the component parts. Educational purposes have to be clear and they have to be repeated consistently by all leaders face to face with everyone. But above all these educational purposes have to be shown to clearly relate to the operational decisions and changes that are introduced.  In the end, it all comes down to building trust and demonstrating consistency and there is no short cut to this.

It’s difficult. I needed strategies to engage in conversations, which would be on staff terms and not about organisational changes; I decided on classroom visits and lunches to talk to teachers and students about them and their teaching and learning. These conversations were very different from the endless discussions of change and college organisation. People react so differently in discussion of their own work. This was my personal answer. It is only an illustration of how you can find a context where you can be relaxed and professionally authentic: this was a natural choice for me because I had many years experience of visiting classrooms and always enjoyed it. The purpose is to find a context in which people genuinely feel they are being ‘heard’.

So building trust and respect is one big dimension of effective leadership, building it up around shared purposes with all staff. Another important dimension is the recognition that effective leadership depends on context: the context of culture and continuity. For example, Westminster-Kingsway and City and Islington have different cultures and different senses of what is essential to continuity. And the intention of a College Group is to keep things this way. Each college will have a strong conviction that the college’s ‘way of doing things’ (ie culture) is ‘right’. In any Group merger it would be very interesting and useful for the two management teams to share their views on their respective cultures. There will often be a residue of not altogether positive assumptions about each other which need to be questioned. Talking about these things can be useful for everyone in key leadership roles and is also essential for the business support services staff who will need to work across the Group.

College cultures do not change quickly whatever you do. And within whole college cultures, there are a whole series of smaller and more local cultures related to curriculum and courses. All leaders at whatever level, particularly if they are working across the Group, have to be sensitive to all this and must find ways to work with it. One approach is to recognise and celebrate the distinctive things of the past and present    – cultivate continuity – and always make clear what you are committed to keeping and developing. The principle that you ‘don’t fix it unless it is broken’ needs to be remembered in a merger. Sometimes the logic of change should be resisted and the strong decision is not to change. All change costs, not only in time and energy, but also in possible lost opportunity. In other words, emotional intelligence is not just interpersonal; it has also to be applied to strategic change both in terms of pace and direction.

Is there a straight forward answer to leadership in this emotional and uncertain landscape?  I don’t think so! But you can consciously share feelings and experience within teams and not fear that doing so shows weakness.

And here are some starting suggestions for issues to discuss in different components of a newly merging group of colleges as events unroll:

  • Put emotional intelligence on the agenda. Talk about how things are going from this point of view.
  • Bear in mind that real change is an evolutionary process in education not a revolutionary one
  • Make sure that everyone is clear what the educational purposes of the new organisation are.
  • Don’t tire of meeting, talking and arguing; believe in communication.
  • Practise devolved leadership and management
  • Ask yourselves:
    • how do we avoid becoming too inward focussed; how do we retain an outward focus?
    • how do we keep teaching and learning still top of the agenda?

Tom Jupp, 13th June 2016


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Ministers are rapidly losing credibility over funding and direction of FE and Skills policy, survey shows


Policy Consortium member, Ian Nash, highlights key results from the third annual survey of FE and Skills run by the Policy Consortium with FE Week and sets them in the prevailing policy context.

What does a government do when it has lost touch with what is reasonable and practicable, in the overwhelming view of both the electorate and experts who provide government-supported services which offer advice on them?

In the case of schools academisation, the NHS doctors’ contract, tax credits, disability benefits, Sunday trading laws, cuts to police spending and so much more, they have performed very big U-turns.

So, how far should we expect the same for FE colleges and skills training? If you share even slim hopes on this, as do a huge proportion of the people responding to the third annual FE and Skills survey, don’t hold your breath. The survey, carried out by the Policy Consortium in association with FE Week, suggests that ministers are in anything but ’listening mode’.

After a climb-down over the latest tranche of adult spending cuts in the Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, there is little sign of any further change, despite so much evidence that the reforms simply are not working and are unlikely to work – indeed, may actually be counter-productive, particularly for the most disadvantaged in society.

Concerns expressed in the survey cannot be dismissed as voices from ‘the usual suspects’ in the FE sector. They are echoed by, for example, the CBI in its latest attack on the government’s failure to invest in a whole range of measures to revive British manufacturing. The Local Government Association has voiced concerns over government policy that will force them to employ tens of thousands of trainees under the apprenticeships drive, without essential resources for such a commitment.

The CBI, LGA and others expect the FE and Skills sector to play a big part here. But how? More than 730 people responded to the survey. Full analysis will be in a detailed report from June 17, but initial analysis of the result offers little cause for optimism without a fundamental Government rethink.

Respondents were asked to grade their level of concern on a scale from zero (no concern) to 3 (extreme concern). Numbers were crunched to get a figure for the whole group in each of almost 90 different policy areas. Clearly, anything approaching 3 should ring alarm bells in the corridors of Whitehall – and there were many.

Funding comes top of the rankings with 2.56 for ‘levels/rates of institutional funding’ and 2.47 for ‘adequacy of learner funding’. Third on the list – and this should really worry ministers – is ‘broad government “direction of travel” for FE and skills’ with 2.38, followed by ‘external bureaucracy’ with 2.36. ‘Staff workload’ and ‘reform of apprenticeships’ are joint seventh on 2.28. In fact, 21 out of 88 areas on which respondents answered a detailed questionnaire had concerns approaching the level of “extreme”.

Ministers might have won more support had they been seen as both more caring and more competent, with a better grasp and understanding of the issues. Indeed, the survey shows considerable support for the broad policy commitments towards better apprenticeships, devolution of powers and responsibilities, a clearer focus on skills and improved partnership working.

But such support is undermined by a perceived lack of clarity on funding and confused or poorly-implemented policy. The whole question of devolution and how the government is going about Area Reviews is cause for ‘extreme concern’. Additionally, apprenticeships are seen as the only thing minsters currently really care about, with little regard for wider FE learner needs, particularly regarding the disadvantaged. The level of concern over external bureaucracy makes a mockery of Government’s much-vaunted ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and claims to slash red tape and paperwork.

The profile of respondents is heavyweight – mainly comprising leaders and managers, with a strong showing from admin support staff, lecturers and trainers. Eight out of ten are full-time employees and over half have been in the sector for at least 13 years. These are very experienced people with a strong commitment to the sector, therefore, and around half of the respondents are involved in front-line delivery.

There appeared to be glimmers of hope over funding in the early analysis of survey data. For example, compared with 2015, when 73 per cent expressed “extreme concern”, the figure for 2016 is 65 per cent. But closer analysis shows that this was not because fears of colleges and other providers were being allayed. Rather, it was because the impact of the cuts caused even greater concerns around the practical issues of learning, curriculum and management. For example, the introduction of compulsory maths and English to GCSE grade A*-C for all up to AGE 19, with the backdrop of a teacher recruitment crisis and static or reduced funding has exacerbated problems across the curriculum.

The Government needs to take heed if it is to regain the sector’s respect and confidence. Three-quarters of respondents at every level felt uncertain about the sector’s role and value in the emerging post-reform world. Roughly the same proportion were moderately or extremely concerned about their power to influence change and the impact of devolution.

We included a new question this year, asking what issues people were optimistic about. Among FE and skills professionals, that feeling remains in short measure, not least because of constant denigration of their efforts by Ofsted. Over half of the respondents took advantage of this opportunity. It is striking that their responses were often phrased along the lines of: “I would be optimistic if it wasn’t for…” The most positive remarks from respondents are around the capacity of the workforce to deliver and hopes for learners. But, set against this, there is a feeling that FE is being run down – and that what matters to so many current and potential learners doesn’t matter to the Government.

The best that can be said from these survey results in relation to ministerial hopes and expectations for the FE and Skills sector is that there is agreement with some aspects of general policy, but that the architecture is flawed and the Government needs to do something about that quickly.

This article is an update of the viewpoint published in FE Week on Monday May 9:



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Hard evidence, not anecdote, please, Chief Inspector


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  ( 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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Student Services and the Localism Agenda


The Policy Consortium’s Mick Fletcher outlines aspects of student services that need to be taken into consideration as responsibility for skills is devolved to local areas.

It is increasingly clear that responsibility for ‘skills’ is to be devolved to local areas even though the definition of skills in this context is curiously and damagingly constrained; in practice it seems restricted to that part of the Skills Funding Agency budget that is not being switched into student loans or underpinned by the apprenticeship levy. Nevertheless it is a game changer for FE colleges: they will need to develop a new relationship with local authorities and negotiate a new range of opportunities and threats. Despite the fears of many in colleges of a return to the days of local authority control the move could well be positive.

One aspect of college work that has not featured strongly in the debate until now has been the future of student services, that vital but increasingly constrained set of support functions that relate to the student as a person. Student services provide individual advice and counselling, offer financial and practical support and oversee a range of activities that contribute to social cohesion and wellbeing including action to counter the growth of violent extremism. It is important that in seeking to align the college offer with the enthusiasms of local LEPs this vital function is not overlooked.

In developing a strategy for student services in the context of localism there are at least five areas that need to be considered.

1. Careers information, advice and guidance. Closer working between LEPs, local authorities and colleges ought to provide an opportunity for the better articulation of local employment needs, both in terms of the types of jobs available locally and the skills that they require. The collapse of local careers services has left a void that schools cannot fill and an opportunity for colleges to act as the key source of CIAG for young people. The challenge will be to maintain an impartial service, focussed on the student rather than necessarily the aspirations of individual employers and one that recognises students can have ambitions that take them outside their immediate locality.

2. Financial Support. There is a short term risk to financial support since discretionary funds will be included in the budget to be commissioned locally and not ring-fenced. It may also be the case that demand will grow if area reviews lead to greater specialisation as government hopes: someone will have to support access to higher professional and technical training at National Colleges or Institutes of Technology. On the positive side local responsibility for transport could enable local partners to support student travel (as currently in London for example) There is scope for increased use of local Compacts whereby employers can support access to training in skill shortage areas or, for example, agree to pay off student loans for those training in local priority areas.

3. Access & Progression. A priority for local partnerships should be the development of coherent pathways between school and work or HE with a particular focus on those with disabilities or who need extra time to succeed. While the fragmentation of the school system presents a danger it also releases local authorities from responsibilities for running schools and positions them as champions of students: in this latter role they are more natural allies of colleges.

4. Social Cohesion. While the ‘Prevent’ agenda has added a new formal role in respect of social cohesion the cuts in funding for enrichment threaten to undermine activities that have made colleges a safe and neutral space for people of different backgrounds to mix naturally. Local actors are likely to have a better understanding of this than Whitehall, and while local authorities have suffered cuts they still retain responsibility for local sport and recreation services and have a strong interest in promoting cohesion. Community Education will be integrated into the new, devolved Adult Education Budget (AEB) offering scope for new collaborations.

5. Wellbeing. The cuts to enrichment have reduced the capacity of colleges to contribute to the wellbeing agenda through, for example promoting sport & healthy recreation. There is however a strong alignment of interest with local authorities which in devolved areas are likely to have an increased role at the intersection of health and social care. College capacity, in areas such as counselling, and the known benefits of adult learning make FE a powerful player in this area.

Much of the discussion around the devolution of skills has to date focussed on labour market information and the needs of employers. While this is undeniably important there is a need to balance it with an equal focus on the needs, aspirations and circumstances of students.

A shorter version of this post first appeared on the LTE website



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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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Response to Sir Michael Wilshaw’s letter


Sir Michael Wilshaw replied to Mick Fletcher’s open letter to him (see previous post). Click to read Sir Michael’s reply.


Mick Fletcher remains unconvinced…

Wilshaw’s response is unconvincing

Sir Michael Wilshaw has written in response to the letter which I and a number of colleagues from the Policy Consortium recently sent to Ofsted, challenging his comments about the further education sector in a speech to Centre Forum on Monday 19th January.

It is good that in his reply he accepts that “the majority of GFE colleges and independent training providers in England are judged by Ofsted to be good or better”. But it is disappointing that, in essence, he seeks to stand firmly by his earlier comments. His explanation for that stance lacks all logic.

He asserts that “for many young people” across the country, post-16 provision is “poor”. Few would disagree. Even if only 3% of FE institutions are inadequate, that is still a lot of individuals – and we should try to do better by them. However, this is not what Sir Michael said in the speech. His statement, to which I and many sector leaders took exception, was: “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.” There is a clear difference. “Many young people” can refer to the minority in inadequate provision, and correctly so; but “the many children” unambiguously refers to an entire sector.

If these comments were made in an off-the-cuff answer, Sir Michael might be excused for not choosing his words with sufficient care; but they were not. They were made in a prepared speech that can still be read, unaltered, on the Ofsted website. They were even highlighted in the speech as one of three acute challenges facing our education system. Moreover, they were set in a speech that made no reference at all to the excellent provision made by hundreds of colleges and other FE providers. Instead, he chose to smear FE colleges as a whole with a dated and un-evidenced personal anecdote.

Not just the FE sector, but England as a whole deserves better of its Chief Inspector. On the most charitable interpretation of Sir Michael’s original speech and follow-up letter, at the very least it deserves someone with a better command of the English language and its appropriate use. On the more likely interpretation, it deserves someone better able to put evidence – and that of his own organisation, in particular – before the prejudice against the FE sector that suffuses the higher reaches of the educational establishment, including Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector.

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Open Letter to Sir Michael Wilshaw


22 January 2016

 Dear Sir Michael,

 Your speech to Centre Forum, 19th January 2016

We were concerned and surprised to read that, in your recent speech given at Centre Forum, you 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.

This exact wording also appears on the transcript of the speech posted on the Ofsted website – and so presumably is not a case of mistaken reporting by the press.

Your assertion is damning. But it is also very puzzling.  We have looked back at the most recent Chief Inspector’s report, published on 1st December 2015. There, we find 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.  On the other hand, more than three-quarters of both those categories were rated by Ofsted inspectors as either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

We would be grateful if you could let us know how to reconcile your recent assertion with the evidence produced by your own organisation, and detailed so clearly in your own annual report.

Should we accept the evidence of that data, or your quite contradictory claim above?

Yours sincerely,

Mick Fletcher

with Judith Cohen, Mike Cooper, Sally Faraday, Colin Forrest, Tricia Hartley, Kathryn James, Ian Nash, Carole Overton, Dan Taubman and Nick Warren

(members of the Policy Consortium)

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