'A national disgrace'
The number of colleges failing inspections was this week described as "a national disgrace" by chief inspector David Bell.
He told FE Focus he was "very, very disappointed" that 11 colleges had been judged inadequate in the past academic year, three more than in the previous year.
And he pointed to a north-south divide in the performance of general FE colleges, with outstanding ones in the North, and the inadequate clustered in the South.
Mr Bell, who heads the Office for Standards in Education, said he expected fewer failing colleges last year, the third year of the inspection regime, as principals became more familiar with it.
"Normally when a new inspection regime is brought in, there is a fairly high number of institutions that fail in the first year and a year-on-year reduction after that," he said.
"We have not seen that happen in this round of inspections. The failure rate has increased slightly to about 11 per cent. It remains a stubborn statistic that is a disgrace. It is very, very disappointing." There would be a national outcry, he said, if the failure rate of schools were the same as colleges. "What we are talking about is students who are not getting a decent deal," he added.
Mr Bell was speaking prior to the publication of two national reports: Why colleges succeed and Why colleges fail. He rounded on colleges that used the excuses of "widening participation" and "complex nature of provision".
"Surely it is right that we comment on the quality of teaching that students are receiving, not the difficulties that might provide excuses for the teaching?" he said. "Where I have little patience is when colleges spout rhetoric about widening participation and inclusion when that is all it is ... rhetoric.
"Too often it is used as an excuse for poor-quality provision. There is no point in widening participation if it is not worth very much."
Ofsted, with the Adult Learning Inspectorate, inspected 70 general FE and tertiary colleges last year. Twenty-four sixth-form colleges were also inspected, none of which failed. Of the 11 general FE colleges that were rated inadequate, only the People's college in Nottingham is north of Birmingham.
The other 10 are Aylesbury, Newbury and Reading, in Berkshire, Bexley, Enfield and Southgate in London, Oaklands and West Herts in Hertfordshire, Salisbury in Wiltshire and Stroud in Gloucestershire.
Three general FE colleges were rated outstanding: Knowsley, in Liverpool, Newcastle in Tyne and Wear, and Warwickshire college. Two tertiary colleges, Brockenhurst and South Cheshire, were also outstanding, as were eight sixth-form colleges.
Mr Bell added: "We can and do see high standards in FE colleges. The real challenge for the sector is that if the best are achieving these, the rest should be able to reach those standards as well. We have to judge the quality of education. We are there to defend the interests of the learners and if we water down our judgements we are doing learners a disservice."
He also defended the post- inspection process that has been criticised for being about monitoring and judging, rather than supporting struggling colleges.
"A rigorous reinspection programme has seen eight out of nine colleges reinspected come out of the inadequate category.
"It is extremely encouraging that we are seeing improvement on the back of vigorous monitoring. When a college is declared inadequate it is about as low a point as it is possible to reach, but it is day one of recovery," he said.