There can be little argument over the importance of high-quality post-16 FE provision. With this in mind, Ofsted recently published Apprenticeships for Young People, a report highlighting many good examples within the sector.
But in October we also published Ensuring Quality in Apprenticeships, which paid particular attention to the impact of the rise in subcontracting, where larger providers pass training to smaller providers. This report made some significant criticisms of low-quality apprenticeship provision that does not prepare young people adequately for the world of work. It also gave a stark warning about the dangers of diluting leadership and accountability.
Since joining Ofsted, I have met many different senior leaders, college principals and, of course, learners, including FE and sixth-form students, foundation learners, apprentices and adult prisoners. I have no doubt about the importance of the FE and skills sector, the range of learners it serves, the talent and commitment of the people working within it and the expectations placed on it to help the country recover from recession.
I accept that our risk-based approach to inspection makes year-on-year comparisons difficult, producing a grade profile that does not reflect the state of the nation. However, we need to worry when in September last year more than 350 learning and skills providers, serving about a million learners, were judged only satisfactory or inadequate in their most recent inspection. Since September 2009, we have found 46 colleges to be satisfactory for a second consecutive inspection, including 29 judged to be satisfactory for a third time.
One of my biggest concerns about the FE sector is the focus on helping learners to pass qualifications without ensuring they are sufficiently challenged or adequately prepared for their next stage in life. This may well be a legacy of previous funding initiatives and incentives, but it must change for our learners' sakes.
I spoke at an Association of Colleges conference recently and asked some challenging questions, including:
"Why do so many providers find it so hard to deliver outstanding teaching and learning consistently across the full range of their provision?"
"Has institutional growth become more important than learning quality?"
"Why do so many young people who leave school with poor maths and English skills not improve their performance two or three years later?"
"Why do employers complain that too many young people and adults do not have the right skills?"
We must address these questions in the FE sector if we are to ensure we do not lag behind other countries.
I am regularly asked by college principals for my views on the different inspection arrangements across providers of 16-18 education. I agree that wherever it is delivered, the entire sector should be inspected with the same levels of rigour - and be subject to the same external measures of performance.
Ofsted is here to support learners and providers. In my time as chief inspector I am determined to achieve a step change in ambition and expectation across the board. The new inspection framework for FE and skills has the ambition that all learners experience at least good provision.
Michael Wilshaw is Her Majesty's Chief Inspector.