Ofsted’s new inspection framework will aim to ensure that college courses are offering students “more than just a qualification”, according to the chief inspector.
Speaking to Tes at today’s Association of Colleges (AoC) annual conference in Birmingham, Amanda Spielman insisted that although it would apply to all education settings, the new framework, due to be consulted on from January, had not been designed with just schools in mind.
It was instead “absolutely conceived from the beginning as an education framework because education is something that runs from very early in children’s lives all the way through to adulthood".
"The issues around teaching, assessment, around how you run an institution, they run all the way through," added Ms Spielman. "They have a slightly different balance and importance at different stages, and the particular manifestation might be different, which is why we write different handbooks for each stage.
“Each criteria in the draft framework is designed to capture a full concept, and then we ask ‘In post-16, what does that mean?’"
She also said the proposed framework would be extensively tested and piloted, and would then be adjusted.
The inspectorate’s proposed new framework centres on the quality of the curriculum offered for students, and also considers things such as student behaviour – something that some college leaders have raised concerns about. However, Ms Spielman said assessing an institution’s curriculum and the behaviours and attitudes of learners was “absolutely meaningful”.
“It is about making sure that those study programmes are thought of as a full curriculum for those students, not just a qualification and a re-sat GCSE or two," she explained.
"It is about ‘What is it that is going to see them develop all the things we want out of that?’ It might mean ‘Is this something that is really about educating, about developing these students as far as possible, not just ticking the assessment items on a particular qualification?' It is a little bit different translating it into practice in colleges than it is in schools, but what is being taught, and to whom and why, is just as relevant post-16 as it is pre-16.”
No campus-inspection grades
Contrary to earlier plans, the proposed inspection framework does not include campus-level grades for college groups – although different college campuses would be reported on.
“It is a question of timing,” said Ms Spielman. “If the right information isn’t going to be there for a couple of years, it would just make it logistically too difficult to set off down that road right now. We thought it might be something we might be able to do alongside this new framework but it has become clear that the timing wouldn’t work.”
There will also no longer be a separate grade for an institution’s high-needs provision. “It is really about trying to find a balance," Ms Spielman said. "We have got six types of provision that we have to provide a separate judgement on. So it is a question of balance within inspection time. We end up putting a great deal of time into areas that typically cover a small number of students in order to provide this judgement, and it is about providing a little bit more flexibility within what is a fairly constrained activity. Inspection does not have huge budgets, contrary to what people might think.”
The inspectorate’s plans have been relatively well received, she said: “I am tempting fate, and I know that what I get personally is not necessarily going to be symmetrical, but I have had quite a lot of people come up to me spontaneously to say they like the direction we are taking. Of course, there are always questions about how exactly it is going to work, but I have not had anybody say to me yet that they think we are doing the wrong thing.”
Last month, the Ofsted chief inspector wrote to the Public Accounts Committee, raising concerns about the level of funding for colleges. While she said that the impact of funding was not something the inspectorate routinely assessed, the stark differences between schools and colleges had become apparent. “[Ofsted] has to look at what colleges are supposed to do and what the government believes it as funding them to do, and we have to report what we see as we see it – which is partly why I raised the issue of funding as a wider thing.
"It is hard for us to conclude in the context of any single inspection that if we see something that isn’t the way it should be, that that is definitively because of funding. Nevertheless, we can see that looking over time, and looking comparatively at the college and the schools sector, FE funding has stayed absolutely flat over a very long period in real terms, during which school funding has grown.”
She added that, despite this, there were still some examples of great practice in the sector: “We see some people who are doing it very well at the moment, but there is no question it makes the job of leading and managing a college a really tough one. That is exactly why I have chosen to say something about it.”
Despite the challenges, the chief inspector believes college leaders remain focused on the job at hand. “I think I see quite a stoic group of people, quite an entrepreneurial group of people," she said. "I think, mostly, we see some people who are facing up to some tough times, some with more success than others, but funnily enough, I don’t see deep pessimism in the people I talk to; I see people determined to make the best of it.”
'More than a qualification'
Speaking to Tes on the day that the inspectorate published a report on post-16 study programme level 2 provision, the chief inspector insisted that study programmes had to be “more than just a qualification and a bit of English and maths on the side”.
“These are the students who mostly have a slightly disappointing, slightly bumpy time at school, haven’t come out with that great a set of results, often not really sure what to do next. This is about helping them get not just the knowledge and skills in a main course of study, but also the habits and the motivation to get them ready for the connection to that world of work. It has got to be thought of as a package.”
Later, Ms Spielman told the AoC conference in her keynote speech that it was unacceptable to put the financial concerns for maintaining student numbers ahead of the future prospects of students finding work. She highlighted arts and media courses as having the “greatest mismatch” between the number of students taking the courses and their future employment in the industry.
She told Tes: “[There is] a big mismatch here between lots of teenagers still being encouraged into [these sectors] and being shown some of the very glamorous jobs we know there are, and yet that is only going to materialise for a tiny proportion.”
Ms Spielman added: "It you have a much bigger intake in a course than can possibly be accommodated in a sector, and people coming off that course are being disappointed and taking jobs that just don’t fit their aspiration or goals, it is probably not in their interest to be quite so generous in the provision of that course.”