'Keep an eye on Ofsted for the hidden drama at AoC'

With a new inspection framework and tensions with the FE commissioner, there's plenty going on at Ofsted, reckons FErret

FErret witnessed a love-in between Anne Milton and Gordon Marsden

It’s the most wonderful time for the year. Well, it is if you have an unquenchable thirst for FE gossip. Yes, the Association of Colleges (AoC) Annual Conference at Birmingham’s answer to the Alhambra – the palatial International Convention Centre – is almost upon us once more.

For those of you bemoaning the days when the conference lasted three days rather than two, there’s some form of compensation: tonight sees it warm up with a film premiere. Think Hollywood stars, red carpets, glittering ballgowns…then bring yourself back to reality and prepare for a worthy film about how important colleges are, produced by ITN’s commercial offshoot, ITN Productions. Exciting isn’t the word.

So what is the main off-stage drama to keep an eye on this year? As far as FErret is concerned, it all focuses on regulator Ofsted. There are two main plot arcs to monitor.

Battle of the big beasts?

The first involves the tangled relationship between the inspectorate and the two other big beasts of college accountability: the FE commissioner and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). Think back to the long-running tension between Ofsted and the regional schools commissioners overseeing academies – a battle that ended with Spielman seeing off the perceived land grab by former national schools commissioner Sir David Carter.

FE commissioner Richard Atkins, however, is proving to be rather more stubborn. Last autumn, his powers were substantially beefed up with the switch to an approach of early intervention in colleges, rather than waiting until the proverbial has already hit the fan. His team of 15 deputies and advisers now also carry out diagnostic visits to colleges seeking advice and support. Atkins certainly seems to have the ear of apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton.

But while the changing role of the commissioner was projected at the time as a transition from hatchet man to helping hand of the sector, is this really the case? Atkins’ recent intervention reports have certainly pulled no punches; in particular, those on West Nottinghamshire, West London and Northumberland colleges have weighed in with some eye-wateringly strident criticisms of leadership. In the former two cases, the CEOs explicitly singled out for blame – Dame Asha Khemka and Garry Phillips – are among the eight college leaders to have left their jobs in recent weeks.

But there’s another story here. In the latter two cases, the FE commissioner reports have highlighted how the struggling colleges in question were both rated good in their most recent Ofsted inspections – at best, pointed; at worst, downright bitchy.

FErret would certainly love to be a fly on the wall at the monthly meetings of the “case-management group”, in which Atkins, Ofsted and the ESFA meet to compare notes on planned interventions and inspections.

In a session at the AoC conference on Wednesday, Atkins, Ofsted deputy director for FE and skills Paul Joyce and ESFA FE director Peter Mucklow will gather to explain “how the separate regulator arms of government work collaboratively”.  Forget the film premiere: this is the performance that FErret’s taking a tub of popcorn along for.

How will the framework work?

The second plot arc to watch is this: will chief inspector Amanda Spielman actually say anything substantial about what the new framework means for FE and skills providers? The PR effort so far has focused on schools – and it’s fair to say the inspectorate has been somewhat taken aback as to how its much-vaunted plans to focus inspections on curriculum have taken quite a kicking publicly. Not only from a Department for Education twitchy about anything that could be seen as adding to teachers’ workload – something Ofsted doesn’t agree with – but from others concerned about the inspectorate sticking its nose into teachers’ secret garden, and how it would treat an area of enormous subjectivity.

But while there are some FE-specific elements to the new framework – not least, the issue of whether colleges should be graded at a campus, rather than corporation level, set to finally be consulted on – Ofsted has to date been eerily quiet, wary of opening up a new front in its PR battle to win around the profession to its flagship proposals.

Will the AoC conference mark the first occasion on which Spielman will talk substantively about the new framework and what it means for FE? We’ll have to wait to find out. With a sneaky piece of stage management, the AoC has scheduled Spielman’s speech as the very last item on the conference schedule for Wednesday afternoon – a move to prevent flagging principals still nursing hangovers from the previous evening’s gala dinner from sneaking off early? In any case, it’s a shrewd move – FErret will be going nowhere until the bitter end.

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