Little but often: Ofsted alters inspection diet

Good colleges to be visited more as underperformers get extra time

A shake-up of Ofsted inspections will mean shorter but more frequent visits for "good" colleges, while struggling institutions could be given more time to tackle underperformance before inspectors return, TES has learned.

Ofsted is planning to pilot several major changes to how it inspects providers in the further education and skills sector during the autumn term, with a view to rolling them out across the country from September 2015. The most significant changes relate to the duration and frequency of inspections, with some providers rated "good" currently not reinspected for six years.

Lorna Fitzjohn, Ofsted's national director of FE and skills, told TES that she was keen to introduce shorter, more regular monitoring inspections, which could trigger a full reinspection for providers deemed to be on the verge of being rated "outstanding" or dropping to the "requires improvement" category.

The long wait for reinspection was a frustration for colleges that aspired to be rated outstanding, she said. "We're looking at, perhaps, a monitoring visit for the good colleges and providers - a shorter visit, but a very thorough visit that will go deep down into some of the things they're doing.

"From that visit, [Ofsted would then] either confirm they are good, or we might decide to go in [for a full inspection] because we think they're now outstanding or are no longer good."

Exactly how long monitoring inspections would last, and how frequently they would happen, would be decided after several models had been tested in the term-long pilot, Ms Fitzjohn said.

Ofsted is also looking at extending the time between inspections for providers that have been found to require improvement. At present, inspectors return within 12-18 months but the inspectorate is considering extending this to two years.

Ms Fitzjohn said that although some providers wanted Ofsted to come in again as quickly as it could, others were finding the existing time frame a challenge. Allowing them the opportunity to refresh their data "would give us a clearer view", she said.

Joy Mercer, director of policy at the Association of Colleges, welcomed the plans and praised Ofsted's moves to create a "more positive relationship" with the sector.

"A number of colleges that are working hard to become outstanding currently have to wait a very long time for an inspection," she said. "Meanwhile, colleges which require improvement have been reinspected after a year.

"It doesn't reflect the reality of how long it takes to turn a college around. They haven't got the results in the bag; they need time to get the results to show the impact of changes made since the last inspection."

Ms Mercer said that delaying reinspections would also be more cost-effective for Ofsted, adding: "If providers don't have that opportunity to make changes between inspections, it's a waste of resources to reinspect them."

Ms Fitzjohn also confirmed that, as in the schools sector, Ofsted would be piloting a system whereby FE lecturers did not receive a grade for lessons observed by an inspector but were simply given feedback. Graded observations have long proved unpopular in the profession; a survey published last week found that 85 per cent of University and College Union members did not think they were the most effective method of assessing staff competence and performance.

But Ms Fitzjohn said the current system, introduced in 2009, was popular with many principals keen to receive "quantifiable" data on Ofsted's view of teaching in their college. "I think it's important that we talk to the sector and get their views as to what is most helpful," she added.

This view was supported by Ms Mercer, who said that colleges, which were not currently told what grades individuals had been given, would be keen to receive more detailed feedback on their staff. "It isn't transparent for the management about what Ofsted has seen in the classroom, and how that relates to the final grade [for teaching, learning and assessment]."

After education secretary Michael Gove last week asked Ofsted to consider introducing no-notice inspections for schools, a spokesman said no decision had yet been made with regard to the FE sector. Any changes would be subject to full consultation, he added.

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