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Ofsted questions bring task to outdo Hercules

Comment: Frank Coffield

Comment: Frank Coffield

I've been reading the handbook for the inspection of further education and skills from September 2009. It consists of 74 pages, the last 39 of which are devoted to explaining the common inspection framework (CIF), which "lists questions that inspectors must ask of every provider".

The CIF consists of four main areas: capacity to improve; outcomes for learners; quality of provision; and leadership and management. Having made judgments on all these areas, inspectors then evaluate the "overall effectiveness" of colleges.

I counted the sub-sections and questions posed in each of these areas and arrived at a total of 236 questions.

This figure is a conservative estimate as I have not counted questions nestling within questions. Nor have I included the specific questions directed at Learners 14-16, 16-18, Apprenticeships and Train to Gain, the Foundation Learning Tier and Employability programmes. If all 43 of these were included, the total would rise to 279 that all large colleges will have to answer. It's also interesting to note which area attracts most questions.

The September issue of Talisman, Ofsted's house journal, said "providers need to be ready for inspection at any time" and "notice of inspection will be between two and three weeks for all providers". So colleges and private trainers will need to keep their answers to all 236 (potentially 279) questions up to date, with only two to three weeks to answer such questions as "the extent to which staff contribute to strategic planning processes; in particular, whether the mission statement, vision, strategic objectives and operational plans are clear and closely aligned; and whether plans to achieve the mission statement and strategic objectives include appropriate targets, actions and rigorous arrangements for governors and managers to monitor progress" (page 60).

Three comments. First, answering the 16 sub-sections and 236279 questions will make Hercules look like a wimp, as he had only 12 labours to contend with.

Second, George Miller's classic paper "The Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two" suggested there are finite limits to the amount of information that any human being can deal with simultaneously. Most people can deal with seven, with a range from five to nine. But what teams of tutors will have to keep themselves in constant readiness to answer all 236279 questions "at any time"?

Third, what organisation staffed with fallible human beings could withstand this amount of external scrutiny? If you manage to answer the first 200 questions satisfactorily, there will still be 3679 left for you to trip over. Ofsted has a Crackerjack model of inspection: it keeps piling on the cabbages until one is dropped and then shouts, "You've dropped one."

Moreover, "satisfactory" nowadays is unacceptable. All must be at least "good".

If Ofsted can routinely ask all providers 236279 questions, I think it only fair to ask Ofsted six. What has happened to intelligent accountability? Or to a light touch? Or to self-regulation? Did the Government not promise to reduce bureaucracy in the sector? How much time and resources do Ofsted estimate "providers" will need to answer their 236279 questions adequately? And whose interests and needs are being served by this barrage of questions: those of ministers or those of learners?

  • Frank Coffield, Emeritus professor of education at London University's Institute of Education and visiting professor at the University of Sunderland.

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