Should colleges finally learn to love Ofsted?

`Embrace' the watchdog, urges principal of outstanding institution

The FE sector in England has never had much love for Ofsted: unions regularly call for the watchdog to be abolished, while college leaders have accused the inspectorate of having an "agenda" that means they are judged more harshly than schools. But the principal of a leading sixth-form college has urged his colleagues in the sector to stop seeing Ofsted as a threat and instead to "embrace" the inspectorate.

Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College was one of the first to gain an outstanding rating under Ofsted's new framework in 2012. Principal Chris Thomson told TES: "I've always taken a very positive, embracing approach to Ofsted, and never seen it as a threat. I'm of the view that it's free consultancy and they're very good at what they do. We can learn from that.

"Some of my colleagues might say, `Well, he would say that, his college is outstanding', but that was on our fourth go."

Mr Thomson's first two inspections as principal - in 1999 and 2003 - returned satisfactory verdicts, while the third was good with a number of outstanding features. In 2012 the college finally gained the top grading, with inspectors praising the "excellent" level of student progress.

Mr Thomson said the college's improvement was due to better use of student data and developing a culture of high expectations. But he said inspectors often gave a more accurate view of student performance than teachers.

"When you ask a teacher how a student is performing, they can't give a judgement that isn't swayed by their experience of the student," he said. "Ofsted see student attainment as it is rather than being swayed by the perceptions of a teacher."

Mr Thomson's comments come in the wake of a barrage of criticism against Ofsted. Teaching unions were gunning for the organisation over their Easter conference season and the right-leaning Policy Exchange thinktank last month called for "unreliable" lessons observations to be scrapped.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, has said he intends to terminate the use of additional inspectors contracted from private firms and to scale down inspections of schools and colleges rated as good. But Mr Thomson's hope of having colleagues "embrace" Ofsted may prove difficult, as even those who support the inspectorate think it needs reform in FE.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the current inspection methodology was better suited to schools than to colleges as it did not accurately reflect the variety of provision in the sector.

"FE institutions are coming under ever greater financial pressure thanks to swingeing cuts. Colleges are having to do more with less and staff are under increasing strain," she said. "It is therefore important that any inspection regime takes account of the overall context within which colleges are operating, and focuses on ways to improve support mechanisms for staff rather than undermining the work they are already doing."

The Association of Colleges (AoC) said that although most colleges supported Ofsted's focus on teaching, learning and assessment, there should be common processes for 16-18 provision. Joy Mercer, director of policy for the AoC, said: "We are pleased Ofsted is proposing a grade for school sixth forms in their current consultation and is inspecting academy chains but we would question their role in post-19 inspections. Much of a college's work falls outside their remit. It may be useful to consider arrangements that mirror those used for universities."

Meanwhile, Mr Thomson said he was not taking his college's outstanding verdict for granted. "Ofsted's judgement is fine and great but it's a distraction from our mission," he said. "We want to see teachers really engaged in their jobs rather than putting on a show for Ofsted."

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