FErret: a visit from an area review team 'will be like Ofsted on speed'

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Let’s be honest: no one in their right mind enjoys the pressure of an Ofsted inspection, especially since a poor verdict could put jobs and provision at risk.

And the high stakes that colleges already have to contend with are about to get even higher as the process of area reviews gets under way. With ministers eyeing a switch to a smaller number of larger institutions, one principal described the prospect of receiving a visit from an area review team as “Ofsted on speed”. Staff fear that a negative impression could jeopardise not only their own career but also the future of their college, which could end up being swallowed by a vast regional organisation.

So surely, if Ofsted has a heart beating somewhere beneath its stony exterior, it will take a back seat for a few months while the area reviews do their work?

Not a bit of it, according to a presentation given to the national area review advisory group last week. The watchdog, it transpires, will proceed with its current inspection regime in parallel with the area review process.

“Ofsted will continue to contribute regular independent quality assessment of providers throughout the period when area reviews will take place,” the presentation states. While the watchdog will provide inspection data to inform area reviews and be represented on the advisory group, it insists that it will not be “involved in any decision-making with respect to the outcomes”.

In line with its latest framework, Ofsted will return to reinspect colleges rated as requiring improvement within 12-24 months, and those judged as inadequate within 15 months. Interestingly, these timescales will not be affected by any merger plans resulting from the reviews. Ofsted will “complete inspections within the above timescales” even, it would seem, if the college has already been earmarked to join with other institutions.

As far as the new merged colleges are concerned, they should expect an inspection within three years of opening.

The presentation also offers an insight into how Ofsted is thinking about the challenges posed by the prospect of inspecting vast, sprawling institutions, which could encompass several geographically distant campuses. While they would still be subjected to “a single inspection that will produce one report and set of grades regardless of the size, geographical location or type of provision offered”, Ofsted reveals that it is in discussion with the government about whether a “future inspection regime may provide for individual ‘campus level’ grades and reports as well as at ‘corporation’ level”.

Strange bedfellows

While English colleges are being encouraged to pair up with each other, their counterparts in Wales are being asked to be even more open-minded about who they snuggle up with. A leaked document from the University of South Wales calls on further and higher education institutions to consider greater collaboration by exploring the idea of a “group structure” to share costs. This, it says, would be an “imaginative but realistic response” to funding cuts.

Contrast this with the barriers that prevent closer cooperation between colleges and schools in England. Despite the best efforts of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association to persuade ministers that its members should be allowed to become academies and join multi-academy trusts, there has been no concrete suggestion of this barrier being removed any time soon. But a definitive answer on this point is expected in the coming weeks, FErret understands.

While rivalries between FE providers, schools and universities run deep, it seems that the appetite for romance between sectors is growing. Perhaps it’s time for ministers to take note. If they’re happy to approve same-sex marriage, surely partnerships across the sectoral divide are nothing to worry about?

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