As a father who’s watched his fair share of Disney films, one scene from The Lion King has always made me think of the moment Ofsted announces it’ll be inspecting a college. Now, at the risk of making quite an unflattering comparison, I’ve always felt that the manner in which the hyenas quake and shiver as Mufasa’s name is chanted is reminiscent of the reaction from some within FE at the merest mention of Ofsted.
In fact, I’m certain there’s a song in there somewhere about the "Cycle of Ofsted".
This fear factor is something that I’ve always found strange, as I personally enjoy receiving the “call” to let us know that Ofsted is on its way. That’s because I think it plays a crucial purpose in supporting and challenging leaders to deliver the best possible provision within their college setting. However, like Mufasa, an Ofsted inspection can at times feel a touch overbearing and not as inclusive as it might be.
More on this: What will Ofsted's interim visits actually look like?
That aside, when the chance arose for our group to volunteer itself to act as a pilot for the new visits protocol being adopted by Ofsted, I was eager to cast our hat into the ring. And after staff collectively picked their jaws up from their desks – whether at home or on site – over this decision, we prepared ourselves for the visit.
Now, it has to be said that these visits are far from the normal inspection routines undertaken by Ofsted. Instead of the usual regime, this was more like a dialogue between professionals – a somewhat more inclusive and, returning to the Lion King analogy, Simba style of engagement.
The visit itself was, as you’d expect, managed in a Covid-secure manner, with robust risk controls in place to limit the threats posed by having external visitors on site. In practice, this meant the inspectors "bubbled" together in an empty classroom, and had either socially distanced meetings with limited groups of staff and students, or virtual discussions with colleagues from across our family of six colleges and three business units. So it was far from the typical Ofsted inspection in that respect. And I’m really pleased to say what a fantastically positive experience it was.
No quaking this time
The inspectors spent their time meeting with senior and middle leaders, as well as staff from all areas within our group. They explored three key themes in these meetings, engaging in deep and free-flowing discussion with our staff, and supporting learners to articulate their experiences of college life and the education and curriculum enrichment they were receiving.
Unlike in some Ofsted inspections I’ve seen since joining the FE sector, staff didn’t quake like hyenas; they simply didn’t feel as though they were under a microscope, or like they were going toe to toe with someone looking to find faults in their performance.
Instead, they embraced the meetings, finding them to be an engaging professional dialogue that was more conversational in tone than the normal Ofsted routine, with a genuine exploration and discovery without judgement from inspectors. This created an environment in which staff more actively wanted to engage with the inspectors, outlining how they were managing in this unprecedented environment and ensuring the best possible delivery for their learners. And when I met with the inspectors, I found the discussions genuinely refreshing, with a real openness to them.
It felt really good to be able to showcase how we’d adopted new ways of working, pivoting to empower our staff to deliver an inspirational learning environment for students, whether they were delivering in person or online. More than that, I felt that Ofsted also learned a huge amount about some of the challenges faced by an FE college group in doing this, which will hopefully inform its future visits and, as they get back to normal, their inspections.
Enjoy the visit
And that’s the kicker to this: what will inspections look like in the future? If it was up to me, I’d suggest that Ofsted should seek to explore the idea that these visits become the new blueprint for inspections. They’re less of a Mufasa style of pugilistic and authoritarian scrutiny, and more of a Simba-like collaborative conversation between fellow professionals that’s inclusive. I know that the regulator has to hold colleges to account, but in the Cycle of Ofsted, I genuinely believe this can be done in a more positive way that actually helps to prompt greater change, which is ultimately to everyone’s benefit.
So my takeaway would be that Ofsted should be more like Simba and less like Mufasa in the future and building on this template of visits would be one way in which it could do this. In my view, these visits are something to enjoy and appreciate for all those within the sector who have them, and I genuinely hope that Ofsted considers using this protocol as a new template for inspections.
Graham Razey is the chief executive of EKC Group