Changes are under way to make inspections less of a burden and more part of the quality improvement process for colleges and work-based learning providers. Amid denouncements of poor standards in the learning and skills sector, Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) have also found their roles in the spotlight.
The cost of inspectorates in the public services has more than doubled since 1997 to more than pound;550 million in 200203, according to a report from the Prime Minister's Office of Public Services Reform. And it says inspection is too often seen as a negative. "Despite good intentions and hard work, many people see inspection as a burden," the report says. It calls for a more customer-focused approach. There should be "an explicit concern on the part of inspectors to contribute to the improvement of the service being inspected".
This report is one of the drivers for change being considered before the next cycle of post-16 sector inspections which starts in autumn 2005.
David Sherlock, chief inspector of adult learning, says his teams must become more customer-friendly and must be seen as part of the process of improving quality. One of the best ways of improving standards in the learning and skills sector is better-informed customer demand, mainly through inspection reports, he says. "I don't know if we are getting to customers as well as we would like, but that's an aspiration."
Recent changes to the format of inspection reports, says Mr Sherlock, have made them more user-friendly. And the gap between inspection and publication has decreased from 12 to eight weeks. He says it will be six weeks by Easter. "We think that is important in terms of the whole inspection process, and the report in particular being a real driver for improvement rather than just a record of what happened three months ago."
One proposal is for "lighter touch inspections" for good providers. Mr Sherlock talks of a scenario where a good college could agree issues for scrutiny that it felt most important for its own improvement, at a time that fits in with its own needs. "Leading on from that, you get a structure where, instead of having one big bang inspection where 30 people come and trample all over an organisation for a fortnight, we have a series of much smaller inspections that look at specific parts.
"I think we then get something which was perhaps a little closer in feel to an internal audit, where nobody's terrified of the internal auditors. It's a process that we all live with on a day to day basis, and you can much more explicitly see as development. That we think is the future for inspections."
Oftsed and the ALI are also working with the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council to develop new success measures which will allow fairer judgments on providers' performance. The new measures have gone out for consultation. Next summer a proposal will be published for a value- added measure for adults. "The whole thrust of this really is to give the learner as customer much clearer information about their chances of getting to where they want to be," says Mr Sherlock.
Ofsted says change is prompted by a number of factors, including demands for an approach to inspection which takes account of past performance and the report of Sir George Sweeney's bureaucracy task force.
The Office of Public Services Reform also says inspections should be tempered according to how much a college or provider is at risk of failing.
They should also encourage self-evaluation by managers and have regard to value for money.
"The implications from the above suggest that generally inspection teams beyond the current cycle will be smaller," said David Singleton, Ofsted's head of post-compulsory education. "To ensure improving standards, it will still be necessary to rigorously monitor under-performing colleges and where they are inadequate a full re-inspection is likely to take place.
"Where colleges are performing well, there is a much stronger case for 'lighter touch' inspection."
"We fully accept that any future arrangements will need to pay due regard to reducing bureaucracy wherever possible, without compromising the need to ensure that the highest standards of provision are secured for the learner," says Ofsted.