FE suffers crushing blow from Ofsted

The inspectorate found not a single instance of outstanding teaching and learning

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Just as day follows night, there is nothing as inevitable as the prolonged bout of soul-searching that comes after a shocking revelation.

Ofsted's annual report, published on Tuesday, contained a bombshell for the FE sector that certainly fell into that category: of the 84 colleges it inspected in 201011, not one was rated outstanding for its teaching and learning. Furthermore, 16 colleges were given a lowly satisfactory as their overall grade for the third inspection in a row.

Of the colleges visited by inspectors that were previously rated good, 44 per cent saw their grade drop - almost double the 25 per cent decrease seen last year.

As a result, TES has learnt, the Institute for Learning (IfL) - the professional body for FE lecturers - has launched a consultation with its members to discuss what needs to be done to drive up teaching standards and improve professional development.

While the new figures are skewed by Ofsted's decision not to routinely inspect outstanding providers - meaning that the sample includes a higher proportion of colleges that were previously rated satisfactory or inadequate - the watchdog has expressed its concern about the findings.

"There is far too little outstanding teaching in colleges," the report said. "No colleges achieved an overall outstanding grade for teaching and learning, and only 11 per cent of the lessons observed were judged outstanding."

The report said there was too much variation between the quality of teachers within individual colleges. Even in those institutions rated good for their teaching, 27 per cent of lessons were just satisfactory and 2 per cent were inadequate.

In terms of colleges' overall performance, the picture was rosier. In their most recent inspection, 23 per cent were graded outstanding and 47 per cent were good - a slight improvement on the previous year. But there is no doubt that it is the state of teaching which is the main focus of Ofsted's scrutiny.

"It's important to acknowledge that it's a concern to us," said Matthew Coffey, Ofsted's director for learning and skills. "We have, however, found and seen outstanding teaching and learning sessions in most, if not all, of the institutions that we've inspected. It's the consistency across the board that's been lacking."

Mr Coffey also pointed the blame at "over-generous" lesson observations; they should be "critical, constructive and accurate" he insisted. "We know it can be done. We know what outstanding teaching looks like and we know colleges know what outstanding teaching looks like," he added.

While Joy Mercer, the Association of Colleges' (AoC) director of education policy, concedes that Ofsted's findings are "disappointing", she does not agree with Mr Coffey that colleges and teachers know what is expected of them. Accordingly, the AoC has set up a focus group to clarify exactly what outstanding teaching looks like.

Ms Mercer believes that colleges' intake - they recruit more level 1 students than any other sector - has had an impact. "Colleges do deliver to the most challenging students in a way that other providers don't," she said. Many colleges inspected this year have had to contend with "quite a bit of turbulence", she added, not least mergers, funding difficulties and wholesale staffing changes.

On this issue, she and Mr Coffey are agreed. "We've seen that instability, that lack of focus perhaps; taking the eye off the ball in terms of rigorous quality assurance," he said.

Ms Mercer also suggested that Ofsted's focus on raw outcomes could have affected colleges' grades. "We want to be giving (students) enthusiasm and exciting teaching and learning, as well as getting them through the qualifications; sometimes there's a difference between the two," she said. "It's not the most amazing picture in the world, but it's not a sector in a downward spiral."

Following the publication of Ofsted's report, the IfL announced that it will hold a series of meetings across the country to discuss the state of teaching in the FE sector, with the first scheduled to take place at Birmingham Metropolitan College in December.

Acknowledging Ofsted's criticism, IfL chief executive Toni Fazaeli said it was "disappointing that too little outstanding teaching was seen" in the sector in 201011. She gave her backing to calls for outstanding teaching to be made mandatory in order for a college or skills provider to be rated outstanding overall - a move that has been opposed by the AoC.

"We want to get to the heart of the everyday teaching and training experience to inspire a new movement of bottom-up developments in teaching and learning," Ms Fazaeli told TES. "We want to look at ways in which teaching professionals can be more empowered and take ownership over their own development, so we expect some new and challenging conversations ahead."

Ofsted's revelations this week will only serve to make those conversations even more challenging.


0 - Outstanding

41 - Good

41 - Satisfactory

2 - Inadequate


5 - Outstanding

34 - Good

41 - Satisfactory

4 - Inadequate


While colleges failed to impress in this year's report, special praise was reserved for independent learning providers delivering work-based learning - not least the expansion of the apprenticeships programme.

Of the 167 providers inspected, 60 were new and visited by Ofsted for the first time; at the same time, the proportion rated outstanding more than doubled from 4 per cent in 200910 to 10 per cent in 201011.

"They performed really well," said Matthew Coffey, Ofsted's director for learning and skills.

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