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Observers under scrutiny

Terry Melia, the chief inspector for colleges, takes a hard look at the lessons learned during the first year of independence.

The picture that has emerged from the inspections conducted so far is of a dynamic, responsive and entrepreneurial further education sector which has responded to many challenges in its first year of existence. It is a picture, presented in my annual report,with which those involved in the work of the sector can be pleased.

Nevertheless, there are issues to which the sector should attend. These include the high wastage from some courses, poor examination results in some GCE, GCSE and GNVQ programmes, under-developed quality assurance arrangements, inadequate management information systems, weaknesses in engineering courses and the poor state of accommodation.

An early focus of attention has been the relative performance of full-time and part-time registered inspectors. An analysis of lesson observation grades awarded by full-time and part-time inspectors reveals a high degree of uniformity. This reflects creditably on the quality of the inspectorate's training programmes.

In their feedback to the council on inspections, colleges have commented favourably. They have also raised some issues including: inconsistencies in the feedback to teachers after lesson observations; differences in time devoted to inspecting colleges of similar size; inconsistencies in the grading of curriculum areas.Thirty per cent of the colleges inspected commented on variations in the frequency and style of the inspectors' feedback to teachers after lesson observations.

The inspectorate's general position on this is that inspectors are expected to speak briefly to any teacher after observing them teach. If it is inconvenient to do this at the end of a lesson, the inspector should do it later. This feedback should not be compared with teacher appraisal, which is a matter for the college. Inspectors inspect teaching, not teachers. The lesson grades are used only in aggregated form and so inspectors do not feed back individual lesson grades either to teachers or their managers.

The responsibility for agreeing an appropriate inspection sample which reflects the work of a college rests with the reporting inspector. Since colleges differ so much in their size and range of work there can be no hard and fast rules about the amount of time devoted to each inspection. On average the inspectorate devotes about 80 inspector days to a college inspection, with a lower limit of about 50 and an upper limit of about 150 days. In all the programme areas inspected, strengths outweighed weaknesses in more than 55 per cent of colleges while weaknesses outweighed strengths in less than l0 per cent.

Agricultural courses were particularly highly graded with more than 90 per cent judged to have strengths outweighing weaknesses. In most cases agricultural education is carried out in dedicated and well-equipped agricultural colleges attended by motivated students.

By contrast, health and community care, with just over 50 per cent of courses judged to have more strengths than weaknesses, is a diverse area, often poorly equipped and unable to obtain appropriate work placements for students, many of whom are poorly motivated and fail to complete their course of study. Similar characteristics prevail in engineering with its wide range of disciplines and mundane teaching supported by outdated equipment and poor accommodation. Such factors adversely affect inspection grades.

The distribution of inspection grades across the nine regions of the country shows a smaller variation than across programme areas. These variations are within the expected statistical spread and do not give cause for concern.

These issues have been addressed in the inspectorate's national training programmes and additional guidance has already been issued to all inspectors.

Steps already taken include: monitoring of the grades awarded by individual inspectors to identify the high and low markers; the formation of three consortia in which three regional teams share experience and work together on inspections; the establishment of curriculum area teams charged among other things with moderating inspection grades across the curriculum area; and the establishment of an in-house review group.

By July 1994 the inspectorate had inspected 78 further education colleges and 29 independent colleges for students with special needs; observed over ll,000 lessons involving about l50,000 students; issued two reports on provision in other countries; undertook five national surveys and a joint study with the Office for Standards in Education on guidance procedures and practices for 16 to 19-year-olds in colleges and schools with sixth forms.

The inspectorate also organised 11 residential training courses for over 600 part-time inspectors and six courses for 240 college staff who were to join inspection teams as college nominees.

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