FE providers left for a decade without Ofsted inspection

In addition to colleges rated 'outstanding', training providers that turned to subcontracting have also not been inspected by Ofsted for more than 10 years

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A total of 19 FE providers have not had a full inspection by Ofsted in at least a decade, Tes can reveal. Data published by the inspectorate this month shows several of them were prestigious sixth-form colleges well known to Oxbridge admissions officers, such as Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge.

Others, however, were private training providers that have avoided inspection as a result of spending part of the intervening period being funded only through subcontracting, rather than direct government contracts.

For one of them, Essential Learning Company, based in Greater Manchester, it was on this exact day 12 years ago that inspectors departed, having rated its provision as “satisfactory” (the grade was renamed as “requires improvement” in 2012). And a further seven providers with an overall grade 3, as well as two rated “inadequate”, have not been visited by Ofsted for a full inspection in at least five years. Seven of the nine are currently on the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s register of apprenticeship training providers.

Yvonne Lalley, Essential Learning’s managing director, says that it was “a subcontractor via main prime [contractors] – therefore, we weren’t required to be inspected via Ofsted directly.”

Back in scope

Now that it is once more being directly funded, Essential Learning is “now back in scope for an Ofsted inspection”, said a spokesman for the inspectorate.

“When a provider gains funding where it has not had it before, it will normally be inspected within three years. We will review these nine training providers as part of our risk-assessment process, which will take account of the available data and any concerns expressed. Normally, we inspect a college or skills provider judged to require improvement within two years if it remains open and funded.”

Cirencester College has been rated “outstanding” since an inspection that took place in February 2007. But this was carried out by Ofsted’s predecessor, the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) – and inspectors haven’t been back to carry out a full inspection since.

Ofsted stopped routine inspections of “outstanding” providers in 2011; it returns only if its risk-assessment process identifies a decline in performance.

Principal Jim Grant said: “You keep thinking, ‘It might be this year. But we know they look at our results every year and monitor constantly.”

There was a level of nervousness around an impending Ofsted visit, Grant admitted: “What we try and do is we have a small team [working] on it, but we try not to mention it to the rest of the staff if we possibly can. I am confident we are ‘outstanding’, but you can never be confident about being inspected, because things can happen in the three or four days they are in the college, and Ofsted parameters change all the time as well.”

Merged colleges

According to the Ofsted handbook, a college created through a merger would normally be inspected as a new provider within three years.

In 2016, Bridgwater College – last inspected in 2006, when it was rated “outstanding” – merged with “good” Taunton College to create Bridgwater and Taunton College.

The “new” institution is eagerly awaiting its first full inspection, says a spokeswoman: “The process of inspection is an important opportunity for us to demonstrate the high-quality teaching and learning experiences that we deliver for our students every day, and we look forward to welcoming the Ofsted team and to sharing the achievements of our staff and students.”

Last year, there were examples of colleges previously rated “outstanding” experiencing a sharp decline.

Holy Cross College, a sixth-form college in Greater Manchester, dropped from “outstanding” to “requires improvement” after a decade-long gap between its last visit in 2007 and the return of Ofsted inspectors last year. Blackburn College, too, dropped down two grades when inspectors returned after eight years’ absence.

This is an edited version of an article in the 19 January edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents

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