Colleges hit back at 'slur'

Leaders vent outrage at chief inspector's 'inappropriate' attack on the sector. Joe Clancy reports

Colleges defended their performance record this week after their failure rate was pilloried as a "national disgrace" by David Bell, the chief inspector.

The Association of Colleges said colleges' success rate is twice that of schools if their performance is judged by the same criteria.

John Brennan, AoC's chief executive, said he was "shocked" by Mr Bell's comments, made in an interview published in last week's FE Focus, and accused the chief inspector of being "patronising".

He added: "It is highly inappropriate for immoderate language of this kind to be used about a sector which achieves remarkable success in the face of continuing government underfunding."

He said the lack of cash available to colleges is "severe enough to affect the experience offered to many learners, despite the superb work of staff and managers. This is the issue the chief inspector should be speaking out about."

Dr Brennan said it was inappropriate for the chief inspector to "dramatise the small upward trend" in failing colleges.

In his comments last week, Mr Bell said the failure rate in colleges of 11 per cent would cause an outcry if the same statistic applied to schools, whose rate is 5 per cent. He said it was a national disgrace that 11 of the 94 colleges inspected last year were regarded as substandard by Ofsted.

His message was repeated this week as Ofsted published two reports: Why colleges succeed and Why colleges fail.

But Dr Brennan hit back by pointing out that 68 per cent of students achieve the qualification for which they first enrol, compared with 38 per cent of school pupils. "The AoC has repeatedly urged Ofsted to reconsider some of the bias in its inspections, which favours academic provision and fails adequately to measure the value-added which colleges achieve."

Writing in FE Focus this week, Dr Brennan also berates the chief inspector for his assertion that colleges in the north of England have "a clearer understanding of how to educate and train the artisans of the 21st century".

Dr Brennan said: "How patronising that must sound to the huge majority of colleges delivering outstanding vocational education and training, whether in the North or the South."

Commenting on the Ofsted reports, the Government and the Learning and Skills Council both said failing colleges must improve or face closure. Kim Howells, minister for lifelong learning, said: "Colleges with unsatisfactory provision will be under notice to improve or risk having their funding withdrawn.

"All colleges must offer opportunities of the highest quality for all their learners."

LSC chief executive Mark Haysom said: "Our bottom-line position remains clear: none of us should tolerate poor quality.

"We will only spend taxpayers' money on good-quality provision. We know there is much that is good in FE, but we also know that there is provision which is poor or indifferent. We have taken urgent action to tackle this."

Two of the 12 colleges rated inadequate three years ago in the first year of Ofsted inspections have since been closed. North Oxfordshire college and school of art and North Birmingham college have both since merged with neighbouring colleges.

The lecturers' union Natfhe also blamed lack of cash for the "disturbing" failures.

General secretary of the union Paul Mackney said: "It is vital that the appalling pay levels in FE be addressed.

"Having driven out huge numbers of experienced staff, the sector now struggles to attract and retain staff.

"Many lecturers are leaving because salaries have still not caught up with those in schools."

john brennan 4; news 5

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