The new president of the Association of Colleges (AoC) has called for more college staff to become Ofsted inspectors to increase "mutual understanding" between the education watchdog and the FE sector.
With most colleges inspected since the beginning of the year dropping grades and chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw singling out the sector for harsh criticism, some in FE have called the system unfair, with sixth-form colleges in particular saying they are judged by higher standards.
Maggie Galliers, the Leicester College principal who began her term as president of the AoC this week, declined to criticise the inspection process, but called for a "level playing field" for different post-16 institutions. She also recommended the experience of working as an inspector, as she did for the Further Education Funding Council before Ofsted took over college inspection.
"That was the best staff development I've ever had for being a principal," she said. "To understand what the world looks like through inspectors' eyes, and to understand what other colleges look like through the eyes of people who don't work there.
"There's a bit of a drive on at the moment to increase both the exposure of HMIs to colleges and also get more people from colleges as inspectors." She said improving this "mutual understanding" would be a benefit.
Ms Galliers, who has been principal at Leicester for a decade, raising its Ofsted grade from satisfactory to good with outstanding features, said one of her priorities was to argue to ministers for more equal treatment of schools and colleges.
"It's about a level playing field. If you take 16-19 education, AoC is running the No Free Lunch campaign. If you're one of the 100,000 students who doesn't receive free meals just because you're at a college not a school, that's not a level playing field," she said. "When schools are inspected, sixth forms don't get a separate grade. There's a lack of transparency there.
"If we had more of a level playing field, that would be a great achievement."
After training as a social worker, Ms Galliers decided that education and training was "key for people to have real chances in life". An early placement in FE convinced her of the power of vocational training and second-chance education for adults.
She began working full-time at Tile Hill College, Coventry, in 1985 after seven years' part-time teaching in FE and HE while she brought up her children. There, she said she developed a pioneering MA course, which brought together NHS employers, the college and the accrediting university to provide a bespoke qualification, in what is now standard practice in colleges. "It was really quite rare then, quite pioneering," she said.
In her first principal job, she led Henley College Coventry from 1997. Collaborations, this time with schools and other partners in the Education Action Zone intended to address the area's deprivation, were again key. They supported speech therapy in primary schools, for example, to help children whose speaking skills on arrival in school were poor.
"One of the things about FE that is really special is we have a holistic view of education and learning, not just in one phase of life but in the whole educational process," she said. "There's a long tradition in FE of family education."
At Leicester, she has put the student voice at the heart of the college, so much so that there are 600 representatives. Ms Galliers said achievement increased as a result of the democratic spirit. "It's a kind of confidence building when they can see how their views count," she said. "For many of our students, the fact that they believe they have a way they can exercise good citizenship, they improve their life chances as a result. Learners need to be heard."
CV: MAGGIE GALLIERS
1974-77: Teacher at Leigh School, Coventry
1978-85: Part-time teaching in college, school and university
1985-90: Lecturer at Tile Hill College, Coventry
1990-97: Senior management, rising to deputy principal at Tile Hill College
1996: Became registered Further Education Funding Council inspector
1996-97: Deputy principal (corporate management) of Tile Hill College
1997-2002: Principal of Henley College, Coventry
2002 to present: Principal of Leicester College
2009: Appointed CBE in Queen's birthday honours.
Photo: Maggie Galliers
Original headline: Ofsted should be a principal goal, says new AoC president