One in five college inspections last year resulted in an official complaint being lodged with Ofsted, TES has learned, highlighting the growing dissatisfaction in the sector with how its performance is judged.
Out of the 45 FE colleges inspected in 2011-12, nine institutions formally complained to the watchdog. With two sixth-form colleges submitting further complaints, the overall number rose to 11, up from seven the previous year. Of these, seven colleges raised concerns about the overall judgement they had been given, while the other four complained about "inspector conduct, administration or information".
But it has also emerged that not a single one of the complaints was upheld by Ofsted for the second year in a row, prompting the Association of Colleges (AoC) to raise concerns about the transparency of the complaints process. Ofsted does not publish the details of complaints, which were only made public in response to a parliamentary question.
"It is a very disappointing statistic," said AoC policy director Joy Mercer. "It is unusual that none of the appeals was upheld. When you have an appeals process, there is usually something that is upheld. But with Ofsted there is no transparency about how the case was argued; the results should help the learning process (for colleges).
"It would be highly justified to publish the results of complaints, even if they are not upheld."
Tension between Ofsted and the FE sector has grown in recent weeks. In his first annual report as chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw claimed that colleges focused on vocational courses of "little real value" and that the sector "needs reorientating towards a moral determination to provide high- quality and relevant provision". Last month the AoC hit back, attacking "significant errors" and "important omissions" in Ofsted's criticism.
Last year the watchdog launched a consultation on improving its processes. The proposals included asking schools and colleges to "raise their concerns directly with the inspector or Ofsted member of staff (at the time of the inspection) to support prompt resolution".
Ofsted also proposed slashing 25 days from its time limit for accepting complaints. At present, colleges can complain during an inspection or up to 30 days after the inspection report has been published, but Ofsted proposed that it would only accept complaints within five days of an incident occurring, or within five days of the report being published. "Complaints submitted after this period will not normally be considered," Ofsted's consultation document said.
It also suggested allowing a report to be published before more serious complaints were investigated, in order to allow its verdicts to be put in the public domain as soon as possible.
The consultation period ended more than three months ago but no further announcements have been made. Ms Mercer fears that confusion over the process deters many colleges from formally registering their concerns with Ofsted.
"People are very reluctant to complain. We need to look at what questions Ofsted are asking," she said. "If you appeal and you have been found to require improvement, Ofsted will be back in another year to 15 months. Colleges are worried about the repercussions of complaining."
One of the complaints in question was submitted by NCG, formerly known as the Newcastle College Group, after inspectors were ordered off the college site last June because of what an internal email to staff described as "some troubling incidents" involving inspectors. The complaint was not upheld by Ofsted.
In NCG's inspection report, eventually published last August, it was rated good overall, after being judged outstanding in its previous inspection report.
The AoC is calling for Ofsted to operate two separate complaints systems: one for complaints about the inspection process and another by which schools and colleges could appeal about inspection verdicts. Anonymised details of both should be published on Ofsted's website, it believes.
An Ofsted spokeswoman said the watchdog made a total of 119 visits to colleges in 2011-12, including monitoring visits and survey visits. "Ofsted recognises the importance that colleges, like other providers, place on their inspection outcomes and the disappointment when inspections do not always result in the judgement grading that a college wants or expects," she added. "Ofsted in no way discourages any provider from complaining and investigates all cases thoroughly.
"Ofsted publishes its complaints procedure on its website and reference to these procedures is currently to be found in every inspection report and in published guidance about inspections." The watchdog's response to the consultation on its complaints process is due to be published before the changes come into effect on 1 April.
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