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Opinion: 'Changing Wilshaw's mind about FE is evidently not an option'

Sir Michael Wilshaw's criticisms of FE may be the 'ramblings of a soon-to-be retiree', but negative comments about the sector matter, writes Ben Verinder

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Further education is in a mess. All 16- to 19-year-olds should be taught in schools. Weak and vulnerable students move from school to large and amorphous colleges and do badly, get lost, drop out. Curricula is irrelevant to the workplace. Provision is inadequate at best and non-existent at worst. Careers guidance in colleges is uniformly weak.

Shall I go on? I thought not. It’s bad for the blood pressure.

These are the views of Her Majesty’s chief inspector, as recently expressed to the Centre Forum thinktank and the education select committee. Which makes them the views of Ofsted. (As Gerald Ratner or professor Tim Hunt will attest, when you are representing an organisation in a public forum, there is no such thing as a personal comment.)

Whatever the inadequacies of further education, these and similar comments have been rightly called out as crudely constructed pigeonholes, at odds with the evidence of inspection and just plain wrong. "The appalling ignorance of decision makers," as Helena Kennedy so crisply described attitudes to FE 25 years ago.

College and sector leaders complain. Commentators cry foul from the side-lines. The below-the-line remarks in response to these comments are a roar of righteous indignation.

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Wilshaw: FE colleges are not 'delivering what the nation needs'

Posted by TES FE News on Wednesday, March 2, 2016

But chief inspectors come and go, colleges remain. These are the ramblings of a soon-to-be retiree who wouldn’t know FE if it fell on his head, goes the argument. Does any of this really matter?

Sadly, yes, because of who else is in the room – the committee members, the national and specialist media reporting these comments to their many hundreds of thousands of readers (or worse, failing to report because they believe them to be truisms, old news), the thinktank opinion-formers – and by virtue of the speaker’s reputation. This is a credible witness, who triumphantly led an inner-city school in very challenging circumstances and has navigated Ofsted through turbulent waters with more than a modicum of success and praise. Mud sticks.

So what to do?

Changing Sir Michael’s mind is evidently not an option. According to his Centre Forum speech, his low opinion of colleges was born during his time leading Mossbourne Academy and has not changed in four years as Ofsted head. There will be no Damascene revelation in the next nine months.

His view, he says, has also been moulded by the regular complaints of "good headteachers" about their local college. Are influential heads making a point of vilifying their local college to Ofsted? If so, it is imperative to understand why (or, given that FE quality does not register at all in the results of the Association of School and College Leaders' 2015 membership survey of secondary heads – which my company just happened to manage – is this prejudice dressed up as anecdote?).

Among the stereotypes are uncomfortable truths. The GCSE resit results in colleges are poor. The many mitigating circumstances are unlikely to register with casual commentators. Having taken up this particular cudgel, colleges can expect to be beaten with it until results improve.

There will probably be more uncorroborated criticism in the next nine months. Sir Michael is leaving and it appears he’d like to take you with him. Why else suggest that 16-19 FE be scrapped? If, as has happened in the last month, respected figures from across the further education world call out tommyrot to ministers and the media then it will continue to lose credence.

Looking ahead, those with influence might wish to make representations to the department, the minister and the selection panel for the next chief inspector, pointing out that the specification seeks someone who "can enhance the standing of Ofsted by being a credible and respected public figure who articulately and intelligently leads public conversation". One might anticipate that this would require a robust understanding of further education, or at least a willingness to engage.

I am not quite sure where this leaves the relationship between Ofsted and those it inspects. If I were a principal of a college that had been inspected since 2012, I would be wondering to what extent the process was or was not influenced by the longstanding views of the organisations’ leader. If I were one of the many further education managers and leaders currently being recruited as an inspector to fill the gaps created by bringing inspections in-house, I would be wondering whether I would like to work for an organisation that appears to have such a low opinion of me.

Ben Verinder is founder and managing director of Chalkstream Communications. He tweets at @BenVerinder

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