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The best inspection of excellence?

Ian Nash, The TES's FE editor, comments on the "fudge" that is the planned inspection system for colleges, with Chris Woodhead at the helm.

AFTER THREE DAYS of intensive talks in private, the chief inspectors in charge of school sixth-form, college and workplace education and training standards have reached some common ground.

But how much further can they get into the crucial detail before irrevocably falling out?

The imperative for a common post-16 inspection framework came in June when the White Paper, Learning to Succeed, called for a new Learning and Skills Council for England and a unified approach to post-school, non-higher education and training.

From the start, the carve-up of inspection responsibilities could not have been more acrimonious. The No 10 edict was to give the lot to chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead. But the threat of a revolt by the very industrialists Tony Blair had hand-picked to advise him forced a rethink.

So the White Paper fudge gives Woodhead all full-time 16-19 inspections, whether in school or college. Scrutiny of adult education and training in college and the wider world goes to a new body combining the Further Education Funding Council Inspectorate and the Training Standards Council. Nonetheless, it will be Woodhead's hand on the tiller.

Like so many political compromises, the total mess is greater than the sum of its parts. The worlds of post-school learning just aren't segregated in that way.

Downing Street wants the Woodhead-style decisive pass-\fail inspections imposed on all taking full-time 16-19 college courses. That is where Blair sincerely believes the excellence model lies.

Unfortunately for him, some of the guardians of such "excellence" profoundly disagree. Many in his cherished sixth-form colleges - the A-level hot-houses - intend to say they want no part of the OFSTED machine when they address an Association of Colleges' conference on the White Paper today.

This is not part of a personal anti-Woodhead campaign. It is a plea to retain an inspection style that suits the sort of young adult who opts for college rather than school.

The common framework agreed by Chris Woodhead, FEFC chief inspector Jim Donaldson and his Training Standards Council counterpart David Sherlock was one with which few would disagree. It is a broad strategy to measure student standards and achievements, to check the quality of teaching and learning, and to assess the skills and effectiveness of management.

The crunch comes on three issues: the role of college self-assessment, the appointment of college "nominees" to advise inspectors and the value of a professional rather than lay inspectorate.

Donaldson and Sherlock want them retained and enhanced; Woodhead wants them ditched or downgraded.

At the heart of the debate is the role of the inspectorate in helping to monitor and enhance quality. Woodhead has repeatedly made it clear that disinterested and detached teams should be contracted in to do the inspection, report and go. The other two disagree.

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, is known to be on the side of Donaldson and Sherlock. Senior government advisers - and former advisers to Mr Blunkett when Labour was in opposition - have revealed the depths of his concerns and the measures he has considered to clip Chris Woodhead's wings.

According to two former Blunkett advisers: "Woodhead plays the smart card and never tries to curry favour with secretaries of state. His friends are found in the top drawer of Downing Street and so he goes right over the heads of ministers.

"Blunkett is passionate about raising standards but he sees it as being bigger than the individual. The trouble with Number 10 is they think Woodhead is the standards agenda."

The anti-Woodhead lobby in the Department for Education and Employment has been strengthened with the arrival of Margaret Hodge as under-secretary and Malcolm Wicks as lifelong learning minister.

Both are smart operators, and Wicks irritated Woodhead during investigations as chair of the education and employment select committee. He challenged the chief inspector on the basis that he lacked consensus or popular support in education.

Blunkett is keen not to lose the "action planning" of inspectors working alongside colleges for quality improvement. According to senior advisers, he has considered three options. The first is legislation to make OFSTED a quango accountable to the Secretary of State, limiting Woodhead's independence.

The second option is a series of reforms giving the Learning and Skills Council and the employer groups "purchasing power" over inspections. This would require OFSTED and the parallel adult inspectorate to provide the style and mode of inspection requested.

The third and - at present - the chosen option is to have the three inspectors negotiate and agree a common framework and range of methods.

Restricted policy documents obtained by The TES show how the Blair machine aimed to create an expanded college sector based on the widest possible intake of 16 to 19-year-olds.

The document proposed the imposition of more "rigorous" Woodhead-style inspections and expressed concern at the levels of underachievement. Those papers betray at once a laudable expansion programme but a lamentable lack of understanding of how and where FE is succeeding or failing.

The FE and industry inspection regimes go largely unobserved in this part of the political policy debate. They are condemned by default, by simply not being OFSTED. Inspectors share the blame for college failures - or so the argument goes.

Donaldson and Sherlock would argue, however, that clear evidence is emerging of how they have influenced the sector for the better. The close relation between inspector and inspected has helped to improve the setting of benchmarks and targets, they insist.

They point to the recent FEFC report, Benchmarking Data 1995-96 to 1997-98, which shows a sudden 12 per cent improvement in the performance of adult returners who were once school drop-outs and failures. The very "quality improvement" measures begged for in the White Paper are now emerging, with the help of the inspectors.

Such measures, based on notions of "business excellence" and "quality assurance" have developed over five years in colleges; they have yet to be tried in schools. Woodhead's opponents argue, therefore, that he lacks the expertise for sound judgment in this sector.

College leaders do see problems with their inspectorate, but they are to do with its "unhealthy attachment to the FEFC".

David Gibson, Association of Colleges' chief executive, said: "Look at what happened when they removed the demand-led element (cash for growth) from colleges in the middle of the year.

"It clearly affected standards and hit quality as we struggled to make ends meet. But I did not see this referred to once in critical reports from the FEFC inspectorate."

The AOC wants "a strong, independent and more accountable inspectorate". It will get part of its request. Mr Blunkett intends to establish the adult inspectorate as a non-departmental public body directly accountable to him.

But the fight goes on at the 16-19-level, amid fears that Woodhead will go straight to Downing Street if there is any whisper of legislation designed to rein him in.

There is a hint of change in Downing Street. Tony Blair's social exclusion unit, in the report Bridging the Gap, calls for measures to assist severely deprived youngsters, including more sensitive inspections. But college leaders are still far from confident that the forthcoming post-16 legislation will yield the inspection regime that they insist is needed.

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