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'Ofsted is right: the FE sector is at a turning point'

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, looks at Ofsted's annual report and what it means for the future of the sector

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David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, looks at Ofsted's annual report and what it means for the future of the sector

Her Majesty’s chief inspector’s annual report, published by Ofsted today, rightly identifies the importance of further education in equipping young people and adults for successful careers but at the same time points to shortfalls in performance amongst a minority of colleges and states that “many are facing a period of continuing turmoil”.

The chief inspector is right to conclude that the sector is at a turning point; the new secretary of state for education, Justine Greening, set out very clearly at the recent AoC Annual Conference that she wants colleges to come into the spotlight because they are critical to improving life chances for millions of people. I welcome that attention after too many years of neglect. It does feel like we finally have an opportunity to build confidence and some stability into FE, to allow the investment and improvements everyone wants to see. Sir Michael Wilshaw says that “the solutions are within our grasp” and I think that is right, despite years of funding cuts and policy change. Colleges will work in partnership with the government and others to ensure that we put the technical needs of the country on a par with the academic.

The Ofsted Annual Report also helpfully highlights the huge burden that colleges have been handed by schools failing to support every young person to achieve good GCSEs in English and maths. Around 70 per cent of young people start college without them. Ofsted is right to say that the policy intention of supporting every young person to achieve in English and maths is right whilst the policy detail makes it impossible to achieve. The impact this has on overall college success rates seems now to be resulting in poor inspection outcomes and yet we have no agreed benchmarks for re-sit success rates. We simply don’t know what good or outstanding looks like in this context. We need to address that.

Ofsted report 'challenging for colleges'

It is clear to us that the English and maths challenge is unfair on colleges. AoC has worked hard to set out the challenge to the government: huge numbers taking re-sits, often over a thousand and sometimes over 2,000; the lack of a credible and respected alternative qualification; the inappropriateness of GCSE for preparing some young people for further learning or for work; the demands on staff and the lack of specialists in English and maths. I’m really impressed with the response we have had from the secretary of state, who wants to understand these challenges and seems open to reviewing the policy. These issues are complex, there is no silver bullet, but by working together we should be able to develop a better offer to young people and much more chance of every young person progressing.

Her Majesty’s chief inspector’s annual report is challenging for colleges, but the case studies included are a snapshot of the incredible innovation, creativity and resilience from the majority of colleges who are facing up to the challenges with strong leadership and success. Everyone working in colleges believes in the potential of all of our young people and wants them to have the best start in life. They also understand that adults need more opportunities to progress and re-train. One of the positive outcomes from the area reviews is that we can see how colleges will face up to these challenges and that strong and effective leaders across the country are making great strides to improve quality.

I am looking forward to the spotlight being on FE because there are opportunities in implementing the Post-16 Skills Plan, rolling-out apprenticeship reform and reviewing English and maths policy. We will also continue to make the case for better investment in young people and adults who deserve better than they are getting. Compared with 11-16 and higher education as well as our international competitors, investment in post-16 education is simply not high enough.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC). He tweets at @AoCDavidH

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