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'Ofsted's new framework: what it will mean for FE'

Further education providers need to get ready for the new inspection framework, writes Louise Doyle from Mesma

ofsted colleges FE skills providers inspectors

Further education providers need to get ready for the new inspection framework, writes Louise Doyle from Mesma

Planned changes to the common inspection framework (CIF), and the way Ofsted inspects education and skills providers from September 2019, announced by the chief inspector, will shift the regulator's focus towards learning and training providers offering a broad, rich and deep curriculum, with less emphasis on headline outcomes data. Such an emphasis will have unintended consequences, most notably an overemphasis on narrowing teaching and assessment practice to focus on the end test.

While Ofsted’s sentiments that it should "be a force for improvement" imply that it isn’t perhaps achieving this, it’s clear that there are issues within the current approach that the proposed changes will attempt to resolve.

So, what does the new inspection framework mean for training and learning providers? If Ofsted can deliver a new context that reflects its ambition, then there will be benefits to be had. In particular, as the focus on the quality of teaching pans out, and learner progress and how good a learning experience is being provided to learners (how "good learning experience" is defined is an interesting debate in its own right). What we are seeing is an inspectorate that is keen to listen and keen to undertake its remit based on evidence.

The proposed changes to the CIF have been widely shared. A single "quality of education" judgement will replace "outcomes for students" and "quality of teaching, learning and assessment". Also, while the curriculum will be core, Ofsted will, according to specialist adviser for apprenticeships Chris Jones, continue to remain focused on the wider development of FE learners, particularly their attitudes and behaviours in the classroom and the workplace, as well as the role and input of sector leadership and management.

Driven by schools

The inspection of safeguarding, which will sit under leadership and management, and hold the same weight across all remits, will be built around three core areas: are leaders and others identifying the right children and vulnerable adults, and how is this being done? What timely action do staff within the FE provider take, and how well do they work with other agencies? And third, how do responsible bodies and staff manage their statutory responsibilities, and how do they respond to allegations about staff and other adults?

As is always the case with changes to Ofsted inspection, the direction of travel appears largely driven by the inspection of schools. This is not a complaint, simply an observation. I do however wonder about the emphasis on behaviour with, for example, an apprenticeship provider working exclusively with adults on management and leadership programmes.

The timing for the proposed changes is good, with the number of apprentices undertaking end-point assessment (EPA) increasing month on month. While the introduction of EPA is a broadly positive step, I have often repeated my concerns about the curriculum being narrowed too early in an apprenticeship programme, as both the provider and employer’s understanding of the tests increases. We must do our best to safeguard against this with Ofsted changes clearly designed to support such a position.

Quality of education

The debates will continue to rage about how judgements can be made about the quality of education, without inadvertently advocating a particular approach. What is positive is the debates are happening and the sector can do much to drive evidence-based practice from within, both in their own organisation and through support from the likes of the Education and Training Foundation’s outstanding teaching, learning and assessment programme.

The new inspection framework is only at the proposal stage now, and will undoubtedly see changes and additions. Reflection, development and piloting for the new framework will now move ahead, with developments fed back by Ofsted to sector partners and consulting occurring over spring term 2019, before publication of the final framework in summer 2019.

But regardless of what happens, change is coming, and people need to plan for a different inspection landscape in future. We are particularly keen to see the reduction in duplication in the common inspection framework between the questions underpinning the judgements.

This affects providers when they undertake self-assessment and, understandably, align their approach to that of the CIF content. Indeed, we had as recently as August made the decision to create a framework for our clients in our self-assessment software module, which mapped to the CIF and reduced the duplication.

Quality assurance

Our position on the CIF remains steadfast – it is an incredibly useful tool to support FE and skills providers to develop sound internal quality-assurance practices. Our advice is therefore simple: focus time and effort on getting this right, and far less on unnecessarily worrying about the inspection process itself.

If there is one disappointment around the proposed changes, it’s that there will be no consultation on removing the "outstanding" grade. The response from Ofsted is to say parents like it. This doesn’t strike me as reason enough to keep it and I'm sure there's more to Ofsted’s thinking.

With my governor’s hat on, I recall a local school-improvement partner suggesting to me that it was a poison chalice. I've since come to understand what he means by that; the pressure to retain it and the perceived fall from grace if a provider doesn't is a problem. I draw parallels with the French chef who recently asked to be removed from the Michelin directory, citing the pressure it placed on himself and his staff. 

Louise Doyle is a director at quality assurance and improvement specialist, Mesma

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