FE colleges' overall performance declines – but sixth-form colleges and independent learning providers improve
The proportion of FE colleges rated "good" or "outstanding" in their most recent Ofsted inspection dropped from 77 per cent in 2014-15 to 71 per cent at the end of 2015-16, the report reveals. As TES reported earlier this month, the proportion of general FE colleges graded "inadequate" by Ofsted following full inspections in 2015-16 almost doubled from the previous year. Other types of providers fared better, however. The figures for colleges compare to 82 per cent of training providers and 89 per cent of sixth-form colleges being rated good or outstanding, both up one percentage point from last year. Of the 82 GFE colleges inspected, most of those previously rated good retained their rating following short inspections, but a “large majority of those that previously required improvement or were inadequate did not become good”.
GCSE English and maths resits ‘not having the desired impact’
The report points out that the requirement that students with a grade D in GCSE English or maths retake the qualification has “resulted in an increase of 156 per cent in the number of students studying GCSE English over the last three years”, with many failing to improve their grades. “Many colleges have struggled to recruit enough teachers in English or mathematics,” it adds. “While the policy’s intention to improve literacy and numeracy levels is well intentioned, the implementation of the policy is not having the desired impact in practice.” It continues: “It remains unclear whether the GCSE qualification is the best way of ensuring that students have the English and mathematical skills needed for their intended career. Inspection evidence shows that, for some students, having to retake their GCSE can be demotivating and that attendance at these lessons is lower. For many students, an alternative level 2 qualification may be a more appropriate means of improving their English and mathematics and ensuring that they are ready for work.”
‘Common weaknesses’ found by Ofsted in study programmes
Among the GFE colleges inspected in 2015-16, 44 per cent saw their study programmes rated requires improvement, with 10 per cent deemed inadequate. Common weaknesses identified included a “failure to equip many students, particularly those studying vocational subjects at level 3 [and below] with the necessary knowledge, skills and attributes to achieve and progress to their full potential”, and teaching that was “not demanding enough”. “Attendance at lessons was low, or an ongoing issue” in the weakest providers, it adds.
An academic-vocational divide – and the bigger, the better
The best providers of academic study programmes, the Ofsted report concludes, are “those with the largest numbers of A-level students”. “This is regardless of whether the provider is a school sixth form, general FE college, or sixth form college…Schools with larger sixth forms are more likely to be good or outstanding than schools with smaller sixth forms.” In contrast, however, “too many technical and vocational courses inspected last year were simply not demanding enough”. Common weaknesses found in colleges included that “teaching did not challenge students enough”, “low” expectations and “standards of work were not high enough”.
Apprenticeships improving – but more work to do
Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of apprenticeships inspected were found to be "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted – an increase of 12 percentage points compared with the previous year. “The quality of apprenticeships is improving, but too many apprenticeship programmes are not yet good,” the report states – some 90,000 apprentices are on programmes rated less than good. However the report highlights the “insufficient availability” of apprenticeships: “The supply does not meet demand for high quality apprenticeships at level 3, with available data showing around nine applicants for every vacancy.” It also argues that the increase in apprenticeships has “not focused sufficiently on the sectors with skills shortages”: rather than focussing on digital, manufacturing or technical skills shortages, the report states, “more than two-thirds of the apprenticeships started last year were in ‘business, administration and law’, ‘health, public services and care’ and ‘retail and commercial enterprises'."
Stronger leadership needed to face period of 'continuing turmoil'
Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw writes in his commentary that "half the colleges inspected this year had leadership and management that was less than good, which raises questions about whether they are equipped to manage improvement, within inevitable financial constraints, on the scale that is required". He highlights ongoing reforms such as the Post-16 Skills Plan, apprenticeship reforms and the area reviews as "very significant projects that will see a fundamental changes made to the further education and skills system. With both performance concerns and ongoing large-scale changes to the system, again this year many general FE colleges face a period of continuing turmoil."
Potential of UTCs 'yet to be fully realised'
While acknowledging that university technical colleges “have the potential to bridge the divide in quality between academic and technical study”, this is yet to be realised, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw writes in his commentary to the report. “Only a small number have been inspected, but outcomes are uneven. Out of the 15 inspected to date, one was judged outstanding, seven were good, five required improvement and two were inadequate. Some are also struggling to recruit pupils at age 14 and are finding it difficult to appoint teachers with the relevant industry experience. Two have already closed, unable to overcome these barriers.”
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