College groups could face more Ofsted inspections

With mergers looming, inspectorate moots monitoring provision at campus level

Stephen Exley

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Large college groups could be subjected to multiple inspections for the first time under new plans being considered by Ofsted to monitor FE provision in the aftermath of the area reviews.

The series of college mergers expected to result from the ongoing waves of reviews across the country are likely to mean a smaller number of larger colleges, operating across several geographical locations.

At present, the inspectorate monitors institutions only at a corporation level but, in an exclusive interview with TES, deputy director for FE and skills Paul Joyce revealed that he was “very open” to the possibility of separately inspecting provision at a campus level, in order to ensure local accountability to learners.

But TES understands that Ofsted has told ministers that it would require additional funding and new legislation if it were to carry out more inspections, which the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) has so far refused to commit to.

Ofsted board minutes published last month revealed that the watchdog will have to trim its budget by a quarter (£38 million) over the next four years as a result of cuts announced in the government’s latest spending review. “We’re in discussions and in negotiations with Bis about what inspection might look like in the future and we’re very clear that we will still want to keep that over-arching look at the corporation level, but we’re very open to looking at campus-level or institution-level component parts of a group structure,” Mr Joyce said.

“But, equally, we feel we need to consult the sector. There are obviously some issues with funding and our resource to do that, I’ve made that clear to Bis and Department for Education colleagues, but we certainly have no objection [to] looking at that. We can see the value of those local reports, but it’s very early days.”

Ofsted’s plans have been welcomed by NCG (formerly known as the Newcastle College Group), which is one of the biggest providers in the country, with a turnover of more than £200 million and more than 4,000 staff spread across 142 locations. It operates three FE colleges, two training providers and a sixth-form college. Under the current framework, all of them would be covered by a single report.

Chief executive Joe Docherty told TES he felt that the current inspection system was “a nonsense”. “The issue for us is to ensure each college campus has its own separate Ofsted grade,” he said. “The current situation where NCG has a grade of two [good] is a nonsense. It means nothing to a learner in Kidderminster, an apprentice in Southampton or a parent in Skelmersdale.

“We’ve had very constructive discussions with Ofsted, and we’re very clear that they understand the issue that the emergence of groups creates for Ofsted and we’re confident they will work towards a solution.”

The Association of Colleges has also been lobbying for separate components of college groups to be inspected individually, in a similar way to academies that are part of a chain, according to chief executive Martin Doel. “This seems to us to be consistent with the direction of travel around area reviews and local responsiveness,” he said. “We need to have an inspection regime that suits the organisational structures that are emerging among colleges. When college groups become a certain size, it makes more sense to inspect the individual elements, then look at the group support structure. But I wouldn’t want a one-size-fits-all [approach] to be applied – I think it needs to be done sensibly.”

A Bis spokeswoman said it was continuing to have “positive discussions with Ofsted regarding the most effective way to inspect college groups”.

“We are engaging with the arguments for campus-level inspection for larger colleges and will provide more information in due course,” she added.

From the watchdog’s mouth...

Paul Joyce, Ofsted’s deputy director for FE and skills, gives his views to TES about…

Area reviews and inspections: “We’re going to continue with business as usual. We obviously are aware of when and where area reviews will take place, and I have given a commitment that we will avoid on-site inspection activity between area phases 4 and 5, where the options are put on the table [with] discussions around recommendations and debate around the decision-making. Clearly that’s an important time for governors, for college leaders and managers and indeed staff, so it feels right to avoid that.”

The new inspection report format: “The new framework seems to be bedding in quite well. There seem to be two camps in terms of the new inspection reports: you either like them or you don’t. We’re aware that some don’t; we’re aware that many do. We’ll evaluate that in due course. We certainly have no immediate plans to make any changes, particularly when we’ve got so few inspection reports that are published [under the new Ofsted framework].”

Funding pressures: “We’re seeing far more colleges than we used to that are having financial difficulties. It is a challenge for governors and senior leaders to take stock of their finances and manage their curriculum and manage the financial climate. Unfortunately, we’re seeing some do that better than others. Those that do forecast well and plan well, that do have management controls in place, are finding they are able to adapt their curriculum, adapt their provision, without having a significant impact on quality.”

Sixth-form colleges becoming academies: “The question will be how we determine the frequency of inspection [after colleges become academies]. Certainly, for a starting point, I will look at what the school model is: where a school converts to an academy, regardless of its historical grade, it would be treated as a new school, and be inspected within a three-year period.”

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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