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'Ofsted still doesn’t understand what it is inspecting'

Ben Nicholls, senior manager of a London further education college and research fellow at the University of Buckingham, writes:

"The fear that Ofsted brings is very much in every head’s mind as soon as we get that phone call.” The sentiments of Staffordshire headteacher Lynn Jackson, speaking in 2010, are doubtless shared by many teachers across the country. There is no question that an Ofsted inspection can be a very tense and angst-ridden experience, even when the organisation under scrutiny is confident in its quality and preparedness.

Despite this, the college where I’m lucky enough to work wouldn’t for a second join the calls for abolition which are occasionally heard. For one thing, various recent changes to the operation of Ofsted and its teams have made inspection a less painful experience.

More importantly, though, the inspection experience (and outcomes) can provide both the motivation and the machinery for change, as well as critical external validation. Chaucer’s Clerk, who “gladly would… learn and gladly teach”, would have been an Ofsted fan; his wise stance sums up the value of Ofsted for all of us involved in education and who ought to be constantly focussed on self-improvement. 

Whether or not improvement is the core focus of Ofsted’s work is, of course, hotly debated. Ofsted arguably shouldn’t be an improvement agency – if it were, inspectors would in effect re-inspect their own advice, which isn’t the healthiest model. But there’s little doubt that, as former chief inspector Sir David Bell has said, “the process of professional debate with [inspectors] brings some real bite to the improvement process” – or, as one inspector told the Education Select Committee a few years back, that inspectors shouldn’t be “telling providers how to improve but can be very clear on what needs to improve”.

In that sentence lies, for many, the real value of Ofsted – but also why we believe it has much further to go in really supporting providers to get better. In a sector as diverse as further education, the national picture gathered by Ofsted’s teams, the constant viewing of best practice, offers other colleges a great deal to learn from.

Whilst the inspectorate does publish best practice guides and case studies, we believe there is much further to go. Increasingly, the focus is in fact on the weaker providers, and this brings many advantages – not least, one would hope, raised standards.

But Ofsted – and indeed the new FE commissioner – must retain and strengthen their sharing of outstanding practice as part of that, for we all have much to gain from it.

There are, though, other areas in FE inspection where we believe, in Ofsted’s own phrasing, that room for improvement lies. Ultimately, with FE more than any other sector, Ofsted still doesn’t understand what it is inspecting.

From a public perspective, many people still think of it as a “schools inspectorate” when, in fact, the majority of its visits are to other sectors. Yet the chief inspector role has been dominated by those with school backgrounds, and whilst the senior team has grown its FE expertise, the board still has no-one with a college background (though several from schools).

Much more importantly, though, is the concern cited in a recent Policy Exchange report on school inspections: the complaint that “inspectors simply didn’t understand the setting they were inspecting because of a lack of experience or knowledge of a certain phase or kind of education”. This is certainly true in FE, although we disagree with Policy Exchange’s suggestion that additional inspectors should be full-time or indeed abolished.

In fact, it is additional inspectors– like one of our own assistant principals – who often provide the recent and relevant experience of settings which is so vital (and return to their own college with a valuable fresh perspective). Either way, there is further to go. Ofsted facilitating better secondments in and out of its own walls, or providing enhanced CPD programmes for its inspectors and for education leaders, would both be a good start.

The root of the need for improvement, though, still lies in the frameworks and timetables for inspections. For too long, FE has been seen (by inspectors and many others) as a bit like schools and a bit like universities, and has correspondingly hovered between two government departments, neither of which really understands the sector. In fact, a college isn’t some adapted model of a school or a university, but an entity in its own right.

The FE sector has to do more to proclaim its distinct and critical role, but the use of a framework designed primarily with schools in mind is wrong – it is tantamount to criticising a restaurant for not being more like a grocer’s shop. In particular, the current framework and timetable for an FE inspection do not take community and employer engagement sufficiently into account, do not focus enough on the context of learners or their prior education, fail to offer appropriate emphasis to off-site learning, and in a myriad of other ways don’t recognise what a college really is or does. 

For us, at a large high-performing college in one of the country’s most diverse boroughs, the development of a more sophisticated grading system could be one solution to these issues. A single number, from four options, can never do justice to the complexity and sheer size of FE colleges. The last Government’s plans for a "score card", where a range of judgments were offered in accessible format, could provide parent and learners (prospective and current) with a far better picture of an institution’s strengths and weaknesses, and enable genuine choice as well as a better idea of where the need for change lies. We were encouraged to see a similar proposal in Policy Exchange’s recent report, and – given the government’s similarly broad attitude to performance measures – we hope this innovative and fairer stance might be on the table.

Ofsted performs a valuable role for FE colleges and the other settings it inspects, as validator, as judge, as helper and as champion. But in its own spirit of relentless focus on an ever better education system, which we support entirely, we hope the chief inspector would agree that there’s still room for improvement – and, if he doesn’t mind us turning the tables on his organisation slightly, that our own findings noted here might be a stepping stone on the journey.


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