It will be extremely interesting to see how the forthcoming Ofsted Common Inspection Framework is received in both theory and practice. A framework that unifies how schools and colleges are judged sounds fair and equitable on the surface but, of course, the devil will be in the implementation and there are a few important issues to consider.
Firstly, the move from away from inspecting subject sector areas to funding streams. Colleges are extremely complex, and can be difficult to compare to each other let alone to schools. Their curriculum is both broader and deeper in terms of levels, subject sector areas and funding streams (think 16-18 study programmes, apprenticeships, college higher education, 14-16 and adult provision). Mechanisms need to be in place to appropriately weight the provision to balance the judgements across types without belittling college education and training to look like a big school with apprenticeships added on.
With subject sector area grades gone, the second most import issue to consider is that value added and other progress measures will become much more important. Unfortunately value added as a progress measure is problematic. It only measures progress on level three programmes for a start, so is only a fair comparator between a college and school sixth form when the college has level three dominated provision.
There are also serious inequities in the value added methodology itself. College students are just as bright as their counterparts studying at school, but it is a fact that they often recruit a larger proportion of students from more deprived wards. The level three value added measure does not take in to account the impact of deprivation.
Colleges often enrol students at 17 after a year of failing or gaining AS levels with poor grades and are great at turning these students around with a good grade in a valuable vocational qualification. The methodology unfortunately includes all level three qualifications taken by a student, even if they were taken at another institution – dragging the average performance down. This is a problem that impacts colleges much more than schools, as it is extremely rare for a student to drop out of college and go back to school.
The lack of a common Key Stage 4 baseline year is also very likely to disadvantage colleges and does not show the true value that colleges add. The Department for Education, under the coalition government, recognised that value added is a poor measure of skills acquisition and pledged to remove the measure for tech levels in the 2016/17 reforms. Another sensible measure being introduced is the completion measure that should close the loophole that encourages institutions to withdraw students that they expect to do badly.
The third and final issue to consider is the movement towards a more mixed bag of progress, accountability and outcome based success measures. As we move to an age of measurement that is more outcome rather than output orientated, I am hopeful once again that colleges will be able to more than prove their worth. We haven't gone as far as weighting ‘preparing or getting someone in to work’ more highly than getting someone to university, but at least we are moving in the right direction.
David Corke is director of education and skills policy at the Association of Colleges.