There is not much good news from Ofsted for colleges, so it's worth taking time to savour it: last week's announcement of a "level playing field" for school, sixth-form college and general FE inspections is welcome. Of course, in the meantime we are left with a playing field that isn't level and sharply declining inspection grades. Can these facts possibly be related?
Take a couple of recent inspections. South Cheshire College lost its "outstanding" grade and moved down to "good". Among its problems was a decline in success rates last year, because students quit their courses early. But the inspectors acknowledged that over the past two years, steps have been taken to improve retention, which is now high.
Ofsted has access to more recent data, but in 2009-10, 74.3 per cent of students at the college successfully finished a long vocational course (the figure is 86.7 per cent for A levels).
Now compare that to Harris Academy Peckham, a school that is part of a federation lionised by education secretary Michael Gove. Its sixth form was also rated "good" this year; inspectors said retention rates had been a problem, but had been addressed. The judgements may seem similar, but Harris did not have 86 per cent of students gaining qualifications, or even 74 per cent; instead, just 49 per cent succeeded.
Its sister school Harris Academy Falconwood is rated "outstanding" with a good sixth form despite success rates of just 30 per cent. And in the case of the new Harris Academy Chafford Hundred sixth form, inspectors confidently predicted in February that "students will achieve well above national averages", although none of them has yet taken an exam.
Nick Allen, quality manager at Peter Symonds College in Winchester, carried out a detailed analysis earlier this year of inspection grades for schools and sixth-form colleges.
He found that among schools with success rates of between 71 and 76 per cent, nearly half were rated "good" or "outstanding". No sixth-form college with the same track record received such a generous grade. Only 2 per cent of school sixth forms were graded "inadequate" last year, even though more than 200 of them would not meet the FE minimum level of performance of 63 per cent success.
And yet it was the FE sector that Sir Michael Wilshaw accused of "poor leadership, poor monitoring of teaching, poor CPD, poor advice to students, not challenging students enough".
It is hard not to wonder if the trend of inspection results isn't the result of confirmation bias: with their boss having publicly accused FE of poor performance, inspectors may feel under pressure subconsciously to find the evidence, even if the data aren't that bad. The playing field can't be levelled too soon.