Chief inspector pulls down sector

The Association of Colleges was shocked to read chief inspector David Bell's interview last week ("Failing colleges 'a national disgrace'", TES, November 26). The difficulties facing 11 colleges have been used in the media as part of a concerted campaign to suggest that 16-year-olds should think very carefully about risking themselves in a college - especially if they are seeking a second chance. Such a serious hypothesis merits serious evidence.

Mr Bell claimed in the press briefing that 12 per cent of colleges are failing. This is untrue. Of the colleges inspected in the three years since 2001, 37 have been judged as having serious quality problems. So far, all but one of those re-inspected have subsequently achieved at least satisfactory gradings. The likelihood is therefore that only about 1 per cent of colleges has persistent, serious problems with learning quality.

Meanwhile, Mr Bell's counterpart at the Adult Learning Inspectorate last week congratulated those delivering work-based learning for achieving the best quality yet.

Mr Bell claims that student success rates are poor. This is also not the case. If schools' success is measured in the same way as colleges' - by the percentage of students achieving the qualifications for which they first enrolled - schools' success rate is just 35 per cent, compared with colleges' 68 per cent. While only just over half of young people are qualified to level 2 by the time they leave school - equivalent to five good GCSEs - that figure rises to 75 per cent by age 19, largely due to colleges' work. Apprenticeship success rates are even lower than schools, with just 27 per cent achieving the full apprenticeship framework.

Then Mr Bell speculates on why there appear to be more failing colleges in the South than the North, suggesting a tradition in the North leading to "a clearer understanding of how to educate and train the artisans of the 21st century". How patronising that must sound to the majority of colleges delivering outstanding vocational education and training wherever.

Colleges want an independent dispassionate and evidence-based account of their performance from their chief inspector. Colleges which are starved of funding will have to offer a less satisfactory service to their students, they may have insufficient funds to renew buildings or have to under-pay their staff.

The Office for Standards in Education cites poor accommodation as a factor leading to poor grades, but leaves the responsibility for this with the college, rather than central government. Even the CBI director general told AoC's annual conference 10 days ago that he could see no justification for paying schoolteachers more than college counterparts. Last week, we heard that colleges are likely to receive just 20 per cent of the funding to 2008 that they require to meet government targets. But our chief inspector remains silent. This week we hear nothing from him about the impact this will have on already hard-pressed institutions.

The settlement leaves no room for adequate funding for the hugely popular 14-16 increased flexibility programme, which offers 140,000 young people a new route into vocational success and which has recently been the subject of a positive Ofsted report. Nor does the settlement offer any prospects of closing the scandalous funding gap which leaves colleges with at least 10 per cent less funding than schools for the same work.

The facts about colleges' achievements are truly impressive. Ofsted inspections show that 93 per cent of lessons are satisfactory. More than 80 per cent of employers are satisfied with the service their college offers.

More than 90 per cent of learners, according to the independent survey conducted by the Learning and Skills Council again this year, are at least satisfied with their experience at college, a higher rating than for almost every other public service. Room for improvement, of course, and room too for acknowledgement by our chief inspector.

If Mr Bell wishes to play a role in improving quality, he should offer his advice in a balanced way which supports the efforts of those who are struggling in difficult circumstances rather than to denigrate their efforts - and by implication the efforts of all those who have managed to succeed.

John Brennan is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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