When Ofsted arrived to inspect the NCG college group, inspectors didn’t just turn up at its Newcastle HQ.
Some of them entered the reception area of neighbouring Newcastle College; others turned at the nearby Newcastle Sixth Form College. Another group, some 250 miles south, arrived at Lewisham Southwark College in south London. At the same time, more still showed up at Carlisle College, at Kidderminster College, at West Lancashire College and at Rathbone Training in Manchester.
No Ofsted campus grades
While multi-academy trusts have become commonplace in the schools sector, there is no organisation in the FE sector that can match the sheer geographical spread of NCG, formerly known as the Newcastle College Group. And while Ofsted – much to its frustration – is still unable to inspect academy chains as a single entity, it has the opposite problem in colleges. However many campuses a college group has, it is still only graded once, at the central corporation level. Moves are afoot to change this but, at things stand, the overall grade – in NCG’s case, "requires improvement" – applies to its provision in London just as much as Lancashire. NCG, like Ofsted, thinks this is of limited value.
This was not the first time inspecting NCG has proved difficult for Ofsted. In 2012, inspectors were asked to leave by then CEO Dame Jackie Fisher following complaints over their conduct. In 2016, its inspection report was delayed by four months, due to difficulties in disaggregating the data at NCG’s different sites.
'A logistical challenge'
As a result, a team of 33 inspectors, including 19 of the elite Her Majesty’s Inspectors – a third of the HMI team working in the FE sector – was split up and dispatched, after months of planning, to each of the NCG constituent parts. “It was actually hard to determine exactly how many inspectors were involved at one point,” admits chief executive Joe Docherty, writing for Tes.
“This was a huge inspection; it was a logistical challenge for us,” admits Paul Joyce, Ofsted’s deputy director for FE and skills, with some understatement.
While NCG only received the call informing it of the inspection on the Thursday before, as is usual, lead inspector Rieks Drijver and senior members of the team had already made a start looking at some of the data. “We were as prepared as we possibly could be,” Joyce says.
'Late into the evening'
But even during the inspection, the sheer scale of NCG was a challenge, with the clusters of inspectors scattered around the country having to liaise and share information with one another, before feedback could be given to college officials.
“Inevitably, some of the feedback meetings, because of the logistics, went on a little bit longer than usual, and went on late into the evening on some nights,” Joyce explains. As a result of these unusual challenges, the college made an unusual offer to Ofsted.
“Given the sheer scale of the task, on the Wednesday of the first week we invited Ofsted to take more time if it wished to do so,” Docherty explains. “The next day, this was accepted and the inspection was completed the following Monday. This was perfectly amicable and helpful to all involved.”
Extending inspections beyond four days is an “unusual step” – but not without precedent, Joyce says. And, in this case, it proved invaluable: “Having the weekend in between [the first four days and the final day of the inspection] helped the inspectors to reflect on what they had seen.”
And even though NCG is disappointed with the drop in its overall grade – from "good" at its previous inspection to "requires improvement" this time around – it feels the findings were fair.
“In my experience, Ofsted inspectors are, by and large, professional people doing a difficult and important job in often challenging circumstances,” Docherty says. “But the existing inspection framework brings into sharp relief the disservice to those communities for whom transparency should be their right and expectation. The Ofsted inspection framework needs to reflect changes in the FE sector and provide separate grades for colleges that are part of college groups.”
On this issue, Joyce is in agreement: “If there ever was a case for campus-level inspections, NCG would be the prime candidate. A campus-by-campus inspection may have provided a greater level of detail, particularly to the readers.”
Ofsted and the Department for Education are currently in negotiations about when this long-awaited change can come into effect.
This change, Docherty insists, is “long overdue”.