Three cheers for Amanda Spielman. The new Ofsted framework, developed under her leadership, chimes properly with the way colleges should assess their performance.
Bedford College Group got the notice call on the first Thursday of term. It was a bit of a shock, but we were pleased to be able to see how the group – formed by our merger in 2017 with the previously inadequate-rated Tresham College – had progressed.
Ofsted's blog: The new education inspection framework
The final judgements matched our own assessment and staff were pleased to be able to say we were judged to be good.
We know the sector is keen to learn from our experience so we are sharing 10 thoughts aimed at helping others to prepare, which include a few remaining niggles.
1. This is a major and positive shift for Ofsted staff
It takes inspectors slightly out of their comfort zone. The framework is more challenging for them as well as for us, especially the volume and pace of information being gathered. It felt a more genuine search for the truth and, in that sense, more collaborative.
2. The process is now far more student and employer-centred
One might even say that it's more education-principled. Inspectors spoke with students in class, in the canteen, in the grounds, even on Bedford Town Bridge, which produced a rich vein of data. Possible issues and inconsistencies are more quickly established, but it also makes it harder to control the flow of the discussions. Expect to be blown off course a bit and prepare for a very fast response, as narratives develop.
3. The focus on intent is much stronger.
A principal normally gets 15 minutes to set out what the college is seeking to do for its community. Our previous experience was that this was followed by inspectors checking how that translated in reality. This time was different. Inspectors spent much of the first day thoroughly checking that the principal’s intent was shared by managers, staff and students. We believe consistency of intent is key to college success so felt the new focus was a strong improvement.
4. The engagement with teachers was even better than in the past
Teachers enjoyed the new approach. Inspectors were accompanied by managers and the premium was on discussion with students rather than observation of staff. Again, we think this led to greater insight and accuracy of judgements.
5. The inspection was of the whole group
We welcome this, as we wanted single judgements to stop any lingering oneupmanship across our constituent colleges. We got what we wanted but inspectors did note, within that overall good judgement, a degree of what they termed "inconsistency". This term implies fault on our part, which wasn’t intended.
We prefer the term "variability", which is inevitable if part of our college was inadequate only two years ago. If variability affects judgements, colleges may be wary of merging with very poor colleges if they themselves are not very strong. And it is different for schools: multi-academy trusts are not inspected as a whole so they can have some schools judged outstanding and some inadequate. Instead, with a college group, you might get the average and this brings unique risk to large groups. One to consider as the inspection results come in, perhaps?
6. The increasing number of Ofsted surveys proved slightly problematic
The employer, student and parent survey results were excellent. Our staff, too, said very good things save for a handful who used the survey as an opportunity to cause trouble. A tiny number raised issues that had never been raised with management before, and they were clearly staff disgruntled by the merger. Ofsted, rightly, has to seriously consider survey results and it changed some of the meetings. It seems likely that some staff will use such an opportunity to voice anger or disaffection. This is perfectly reasonable, but also new to the inspection process. As a sector, we may have to consider how this should be managed during an emotionally fraught few days.
7. The non-use of unpublished data was unexpectedly not an issue
We feared an inspection based on 2017-18 data might be unhelpful if what inspectors saw did not chime with that data and we could not use 2018-19 data to challenge things. In practice, all discussions were professional and concerned with the truth. Data presented was not ignored – it was simply not evidenced. This is still an area to watch, however, given most colleges, especially large ones, inevitably use data as a key source of evidence of impact.
8. The relationship between college and inspectors felt even more professional than before, and more direct
The quick assembly of high volumes of information meant we had very open conversations along the lines of “We’ve got enough evidence to support our view, don’t waste time trying to change that” and “This looks inconsistent so where can we get the true position?” This meant college staff were able to use their time more effectively and it meant a number of areas where this happened were actually judged as strengths.
9. The new framework is tougher
The judgement was in line with our own assessment, but our college has the highest student achievement in the East and East Midlands, and some of the best 16-to-18 and adult outcomes in the country. We have a strong track record of taking on inadequate provision and colleges in financial distress. The report highlighted only three areas to improve. The bar has been raised. Time will tell if this means average grades will drift downwards. This is not a problem per se, but the government may then need to recalibrate how it uses judgements to award funding contracts. We don’t want to see apprenticeship provision removed simply because the marks are harder to get.
10. The new approach assembles a very rich volume of data, quickly cross-checked for validity
The deep dives increase that richness. For a college, this means the judgements should be more accurate and reliable. No regime is perfect, but we expect there will be fewer “errors” of judgement. The volume of data means noise (concerns that insignificant in scale) will be drowned out by the true story of your institution.
It is pleasing that the few concerns we raise above are being seriously considered by Ofsted, and we hope these personal reflections are useful to our sector colleagues.
Of course, some things don’t change. “Terrible Tuesday” hasn’t gone away!
Ian Pryce is principal and chief executive, and Em Lowe is vice principal and Ofsted nominee, both of Bedford College