A new system in focus

4th February 2000 at 00:00
The best of the college inspection regime should be retained in the Government's post-16 shake-up, argues Jim Donaldson.

The broad thrust of the Government's post-16 reforms has been welcomed. In contrast, the proposals for inspection were met with considerable surprise. There is particular concern about the proposed division of responsibility between Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, and the new adult education and training inspectorate for those institutions inspected by the Further Education Funding Council.

Since the FEFC inspectorate has an important job to do for two more years, I welcome the opportunity to present my views. Instead of Ofsted, the FEFC and the Training and Skills Council working independently, there will be just two inspectorates. There will be a common framework, greater coherence in the data used to describe the performance of individual providers, and joint planning and working between the inspectorates.

It will be good, provided that nobody feels the process of inspection has taken a retrograde step and that the operational side of planning and carrying out joint inspections can be made to run smoothly. It will be important to preserve the very best of what we already have. Let me give you a few examples:

* Self-assessment. For colleges, this has proved to be a powerful mechanism for raising standards and improving accountability.

* Grading. Inspection against a graded scale enables clear and comparable judgments on quality and standards.

* Appeals. The right to appeal against externally made judgments is, I believe, fundamental. Inspectors are not infallible.

* Reinspection. Evidence shows that the publication of unsatisfactory grades, a subsequent action plan and reinspection within a year improves quality.

* Governance. Inspection since September 1997 has enabled us to take a more rounded view of college performance and staff and student welfare. Many colleges spend more than pound;10 million of public money annually and are big employers in their communities. The impact of poor management is therefore widespread. Furthermore, unsatisfactory governance or management can result in poor practice spiralling out of control.

* Institutional involvement. Our inspectors always invite colleges to nominate a senior staff member to observe inspections. This ensures that inspections run smoothly and that outcomes are understood and used to best effect.

By highlighting features that work well, I am not arguing for the status quo. Equally, however, we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

By emphasising self-assessment and quality improvement, I am trying to establish links with the business excellence model which is increasingly the way forward for industry and commerce. The challenge is to bring our experience together with that of the Training and Skills Council nd of Ofsted, to develop a common framework and single approach to reporting inspections.

We have already found much common ground among the three inspectorates. Reporting methods are different. We, and the TSC, give feedback and publish grades; Ofsted does not, for the most part. We and the TSC employ inspectors; Ofsted contracts out inspection work. But differences of approach can be resolved and a common core of inspection activity developed for all FE, whether provided by schools, colleges, private trainers or local authorities.

The use of a common framework would ensure consistency, regardless of who organises the inspection. Equally, there need be no compromise to the duties for each of the two inspectorates.

We look forward to joint inspections. We have a proven track record on key skills, GNVQs and post-16 collaborations between sixth-forms and colleges.

This kind of co-operative model is being developed for the area inspections of 16 to 19 provision proposed in the Learning and Skills Bill. Such inspections will involve all 16 to 19-year-olds in a given geographical or administrative area, which, I hope, will help us gain a much better understanding of the options facing every 16-year-old. They should help us discover why 9 per cent of young people, as identified by the Social Exclusion Unit, do not progress to further education, training or employment, and what needs to be done about it.

The new Bill gives a firm steer on quality improvement. It reflects so many of the developments already in hand. The FEFC already has a strategy and unit covering this area and a system for linking funding to quality. We have regular reviews to consider college performance and the benefits of the Government's Standards Fund which allows rapid action to address weaknesses.

The legislation promises an extension of such arrangements to all those funded by the Learning and Skills Council. I sincerely hope that accreditation - which allows us to give a lighter touch to inspections of consistently excellent colleges - is carried forward.

There is no doubt in my mind that "intervention in inverse proportion to success" is sensible. It enables more efficient use of resources and prevents unnecessary interference. Accredited colleges deserve a lighter touch.

Of course, inspection and quality improvement must be strongly linked. I would expect the adult inspectorate to have a big input to the Learning and Skills Council: offering advice, assessing action plans and monitoring progress.

There are some practical aspects to sort out: will the Learning and Skills Council receive advice from two inspectorates? Wouldn't it be better to come from a single source? Fundamental to the changes is a clear emphasis on raising standards. This clarity should be welcomed.

Jim Donaldson is the FEFC's chief inspector

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