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Ofsted: ‘tyranny of numbers’ attacked as providers' inspection grades fall

Two-thirds of colleges inspected last year failed to get ‘good’ or better, new figures reveal

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This is an edited version of an article in the 16 October edition of TES. To read the full article, subscribe to TES 

Funding cuts and policy changes have contributed to a marked drop in the proportion of FE providers being awarded the best grades by Ofsted, sector leaders have warned.

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of the general FE colleges inspected in 2014-15 were rated as inadequate or requires improvement, up from 38 per cent the previous year, according to new figures from the inspectorate. In the same period, the proportion of colleges given the lowest grade doubled from 5 per cent to 10 per cent.

The overall drop was even more pronounced among sixth-form colleges, often regarded as the best-performing type of post-16 providers. None of the 15 colleges inspected in the last academic year was found to be outstanding, with the proportion rated inadequate increasing more than six-fold, from just 3 per cent in 2013-14 to 20 per cent a year later.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) said the figures for the two years were not comparable as fewer colleges were inspected in 2014-15. However, the statistics do raise the prospect of FE providers coming in for strong criticism in Ofsted’s annual report, due to be published in early December.

‘Bad practice’ in apprenticeships

The new figures emerged days before the launch of an Ofsted report focusing on apprenticeship programmes. The report, due to be published next week, is expected to reveal that there is “quite a lot of bad practice”, skills minister Nick Boles told the Conservative Party conference earlier this month.

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has a long track record of criticising FE providers. In 2012, he accused the sector of focusing on vocational courses of “little real value”, arguing that it needed “reorientating towards a moral determination to provide high-quality and relevant provision”.

Last year, however, the FE sector was praised for an increase in providers rated good or outstanding. Ofsted’s most recent annual report acknowledges that “the sector has responded” to criticisms, highlighting the “better teaching, learning and assessment” across most types of providers. But the new results of inspections in 2014-15 could mark another shift in the inspectorate’s relationship with the sector.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association, said the figures had been skewed by Ofsted’s focus on colleges that were rated as requires improvement, as well as the watchdog “raising the bar” for inspections.

“It’s not only very hard to become outstanding; it’s very hard to remain outstanding,” he said. “If you look at the outstanding colleges that have been inspected, there have not been many – if any – that have been able to retain it. I think there’s been a ratcheting up and they’ve been raising the bar higher and higher.”

‘Disappointing’ grades

Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said the drop in providers’ ratings reflected the challenges posed by funding cuts and policy changes such as the launch of traineeships and changes to apprenticeship delivery.

“It’s always disappointing to see those grades going in the wrong direction,” he said. “The level of expectation on providers has increased, and I think there’s been more focus, for example, on timely completions rather than just completions. And considering funding levels have reduced in real terms, demands on English and maths have increased.

“It is disappointing but it’s not surprising that that’s reflected in some of those grades. We hope that they will improve. But there is no doubt that the demands on training providers are high.”

David Corke, the AoC’s director of education and skills policy, pointed out that Ofsted had inspected 48 general FE colleges in 2014-15, as opposed to 81 the previous year.

“You can’t compare the two years,” he told TES. “We’ve still got a sector that’s 82 per cent good or better [according to the most recent inspection in all colleges]; let’s celebrate that. I think we sometimes lose sight of the quality that exists out there. This is down to the tyranny of the numbers in one year. The standards across the sector have held up.”

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