New FE inspectors should go back to school

FOLLOWING some earlier fact-finding visits, the Office for Standards in Education is about to begin its inspections of further education teacher training in earnest. A "survey inspection" will cover eight higher education institutions and more than 20 FE colleges, starting in September.

Inspectors will look at standards achieved by trainees, at training quality, and at management and quality assurance. They will adopt a longitudinal approach, focusing on student progress and learning over three terms.

They will assess both pre-service and in-service training and the selected sample of institutions reflects the diversity of provision, including various kinds of accreditation, franchise and delivery arrangements.

But this is a complex world and one that has prided itself on its responsiveness and flexibility. In the school sector, OFSTED acquired a reputation for "robustness". There is now anxiety within the FE teacher training community that the real and necessary differences between ourselves and the compulsory sector will be over-looked or misinterpreted.

Most in-service programmes contain a huge variety of trainees from industry, public-sector organisations, private training providers, charities and adult education institutions, as well as from FE. Some trainees teach in more than one context. The destinations of those who complete pre-service programmes are also diverse.

And yet OFSTED will, it says, focus only on FE teachers. How will it know who they are? What sense does it make to single them out when assessing the quality of provision?

In the final phase, subject specialists will apparently supplement the core inspection team. Just as the range of teaching contexts is diverse, so too is the range of specialisms. No two FE colleges are alike and subjects taught cover the full range of vocational and academic fields. From welding, economics, catering and IT, to hairdressing, swimming and history - OFSTED will be hard put to manage subject inspection in a convincing way.

Also worrying is their intention to assess the appropriateness of the Further Education National Training Organisation standards for "newly qualified teachers". This phrase is not typically used in FE and here, the school model is again lurking in the wings. The FENTO standards were the product of a mapping analysis of the FE teacher's work and some consultation with college staff. Though they have their imperfections - there are probably too many of them and it has never been entirely clear which are for initial training and which for professional development - they have now been embedded in most initial training programmes and their associated values are widely respected.

These values sum up things that are important to most FE teachers, such as inclusivity and learner autonomy. The FENTO standards are not competence-based and they cover more than classroom performance. They were always meant to and to lose them now or see them radically changed to fit the Teacher Training Agency model, for example, would seriously undermine the sector's growing professional confidence.

Current emphasis on the 14 to 19 curriculum is given as one reason for adopting a school-based approach to the inspection of FE. Political pressure to see comprehensive reform of all post-16 education is the more likely explanation.

Training providers who have just adapted programmes to meet FENTO standards are now coming to terms with the implications of OFSTED's involvement. During the next year, they are also expected to develop their qualifications to cover the teaching of basic skills - and still there is no sign that the pay gap between school and FE teachers is being seriously addressed. If FE is to come into line with school-based requirements, let us see its teachers properly rewarded.

Jocelyn Robson is senior lecturer at the University of Surrey school of educational studies

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