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'Colleges must prepare for accountability reforms'

David Russell , chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation, writes:

Coverage of the reforms to 16-19 education has until now been dominated by discussion of two things, the implications of maths and English requirements, and the overall funding context they land in.

But amidst all this justified interest and concern, a grey-skinned quadruped has been cheerfully going about its business, preparing for September … and beyond.

At the end of March, the Department for Education published its response to the consultation on 16-19 accountability.  In it they revealed changes that they hope will create a much better informed FE marketplace, shaping both the quality and type of qualifications that colleges and schools offer in 16-19 study programmes.

The new accountability measures will show for the first time in one place an accurate and even-handed assessment of what type of provision a college or school offers and how well its learners achieve on a range of measures. The stated aim is to allow students to “choose the providers that offer the best chance of helping them to achieve their ambitions”.

Let’s face it, up until now, although performance has always mattered to teachers and leaders within the education and skills system, it has not driven learner choice as strongly as it might. We all know study decisions are more often shaped by location, peer opinion and overall reputation than by performance data.  This could all change.  In much the same way as the introduction of student loans in higher education has led to a more demanding student body, the government hopes an “accountability culture” will lead to a more dynamic, performance-driven FE marketplace.

The new data will not only allow providers to be judged on a level playing field, they will also oblige governing bodies to focus on strengths and weaknesses, and think about the local offer they make in the context of other institutions.  If learners are comparing college performance data with other options, then governors will need to too.

So the reforms could transform the FE landscape, and sooner than you might think. Their initial impact will be felt this September when only A levels and qualifications on DfE’s approved lists of Tech Levels and Applied General qualifications will count in future college performance tables. A list of Substantial Vocational Qualifications at level 2 will be published in autumn 2014, for teaching from September 2015, to count in the 2017 performance tables.

Colleges teaching qualifications which aren’t on the approved list run the risk of losing visibility of their provision.  And more fundamentally, governors will want to think hard about why their college is offering qualifications which have not passed a rigorous process proving quality and relevance.

There has been some anxiety in the sector that attainment measures will come to rule the roost in future.  It is true that ‘league tables’ have driven perverse behaviours in schools in the past, and that success rates have been quite a crude measure in further education & skills.   But the new measures are well thought-through with a good emphasis on progression.

Headline measures for the new accountability tables will be: progress, attainment, retention, destinations and progress in English and maths (for students without a GCSE pass at A*-C in these subjects). A broader set of measures to provide a fuller picture of institutional performance is also planned.

Ofsted has introduced new inspection frameworks for both schools and the further education and skills sector, with a greater focus on students making expected levels of progress.  This is underlined by the government’s response to the consultation on 16-19 accountability: “We will use progress measures, where possible, as the basis for setting new minimum standards to hold schools and colleges to account.” In simple terms students will be expected to be able to move to a higher level than their starting point.

But the government is also trying to promote high quality qualifications, as well as focus on progression.

The new ‘gold standard’ in vocational qualifications is Tech Levels, and for these both attainment and completion will be emphasised.  This makes sense, given that they are strongly occupationally orientated, so while progression matters from an educational standpoint, cold hard achievement is vital.

What all this means practically for colleges and school sixth forms is that their results will be under the spotlight as never before.  If they do not act promptly in response to these changes, change may be thrust upon them when learners start to pick up the new information and make their choices based on it.

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