Ofsted has vowed to create a "level playing field" to ensure that schools are judged on the same criteria as FE and sixth-form colleges. At present, separate frameworks are used to inspect different institutions, and colleges have long complained that they are treated more harshly than schools as a result. The set-up also makes it impossible for students and parents to make fair comparisons.
A report published last week by the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum (SFCF) claimed that more than 300 schools have a worse success rate than the lowest-performing college - but many of them are rated "outstanding" for their post-16 provision.
Ofsted has previously denied that some providers are judged more harshly than others. But the watchdog's national director of learning and skills, Matthew Coffey, told the SFCF's summer conference last week that, from September, inspectors will use "the full range of achievement measures available" and compare colleges to "all national averages", rather than just the same kind of provider.
"Reports will not present outcomes simply in relation to sixth-form college national averages," Mr Coffey told principals.
SFCF deputy chief executive James Kewin welcomed the "game-changing" move from Ofsted. "It shows they have been listening, and they have responded. Credit where credit is due: the direction of travel is sensible, although some of the details still need to be thrashed out."
The difficulty, Mr Coffey believes, is caused by the Department for Education collecting different data from schools and colleges. "Achieving a level playing field is mostly, but not exclusively, dependent on the DfE collecting and publishing comparable data for all 16- to 18-year-olds," he told principals. "The school sixth-form judgement is based in part on data that is not the same as for sixth-form colleges, but, more importantly, it is a contributory judgement for the whole school's effectiveness.
"However, Ofsted is looking carefully at the training and guidance for inspectors to ensure that, within the current restraints, judgements are as equitable as possible."
The changes follow an Education Select Committee report on the issue, published last year. During the investigation, Lesley Davies, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, told MPs: "We have different frameworks applying to the same age group. In schools they ask, `Are you happy and do you turn up on time?', and for colleges it's about outcomes and strategic leadership."
The select committee's report acknowledged colleges' fears. "We are concerned that the current inspection processes for sixth forms, schools and colleges are not consistent with each other, giving a potentially misleading impression of those institutions' performance. The data used to judge institutions needs to be the same for students in the same age groups," it said.
While the changes explained by Mr Coffey have been welcomed, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, believes that they will be easier said than done. "It is important that inspectors should look at the quality of education, regardless of the context," he said. "But it is essential for all institutions to provide data in the same format. The DfE and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have got a lot of work to do."
Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges, said: "We have been pushing for moves in this direction for years and are pleased to see Ofsted is committed to doing it despite technical obstacles.
"While this move is welcome, it will be important to ensure that comparisons are not snap judgements based on one single indicator. We remain concerned that, despite promises in the Education Act 2011 to develop consistent measures of success between schools and colleges, there is a delay in implementation by the DfE."
Ms Mercer added that having a separate grade for school sixth-form provision would be the next "logical step".
Original headline: Ofsted promises to `level the playing field' for post-16 inspections