Disgusted of Weymouth

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
The redevelopment of Weymouth college has been severely criticised by Ofsted. Its former principal feels he has been scapegoated. James Sturcke reports

Sixteen-hour days were not uncommon for Malcolm Jacobs as he fought to ensure that the biggest building project his college had ever attempted was delivered on time and within budget.

As vice-principal of Weymouth college, Mr Jacobs was responsible for a pound;13 million scheme to merge two campuses into one, replacing wasting old buildings with modern ones capable of attracting new students and reversing the institution's decline.

When his boss unexpectedly resigned in 2000, the former science and maths tutor added the role of acting principal to his workload. The campus merger successfully went ahead during summer 2001 and, when Mr Jacobs retired a year later, he was proud that the building project he had nurtured would benefit thousands of future students.

So it came as a shock to Mr Jacobs, 66, when, six months into his retirement, Ofsted published a report which pilloried the college and was scathing about the handling of the construction work.

Inspectors concluded that the new accommodation was unsuitable for its purpose. Much of it was not accessible to people with restricted mobility.

Some classrooms were too small and some lessons were disturbed by noise from neighbouring workshops. Ventilation was inadequate, ceilings were too low, while the library and computer centres were overcrowded. In a 44-page report, five words about the building project sprang out at Mr Jacobs:

"This was not well managed".

It became front-page news in the Dorset Echo, which led with the headline "Ofsted report blasts college". In the accompanying article, the new principal, with whom Mr Jacobs says he spent a difficult final term, said the report was no surprise and most of the criticism was aimed at the previous management.

"I was absolutely disgusted," Mr Jacobs says. "The content of the report is incomplete, unbalanced and unfair. We had provided accommodation that in the main was totally satisfactory and achieved its objectives. Some of the unsatisfactory outcomes Ofsted quoted were very minor within a pound;13m project. If the unsatisfactory outcomes represent at most 5 per cent of the total project, then why was the tremendous success of the remaining 95 per cent totally ignored?"

Mr Jacobs was annoyed that, since all the senior staff involved in the building project had left the college by the time Ofsted visited in October 2002, inspectors had not heard firsthand accounts of the development.

He complained to Ofsted, pointing out the project's legal requirements had been complex, a site had been disposed of and multiple planning applications had been approved "in record time". The new buildings were finished on schedule and all expenditure was within planned limits and approved by the Further Education Funding Council and the bank. He said the reduced space was due to the FEFC's requirement to cut accommodation from 26,000 to 18,500 square metres and to recent increases in student numbers.

He told FE Focus: "Ofsted procedures allow for the college to comment on the draft report. But in this case all the senior managers had left the college and there was no opportunity to correct inaccuracies or exercise a right of reply.

"No justification has been given for the statement that the project was 'not well managed'. If it can be justified it is not unreasonable to expect the evidence to be made available to those who managed the project.

"I want Ofsted to admit there were certain inadequacies in the published report but, to be frank, they would have to climb down and they are not prepared to do so. I am sure I am not the only one in this position. There should be a national debate."

For its part, Ofsted has taken considerable time in addressing Mr Jacobs's concerns but refuses to disclose specific details of the evidence made available to inspectors on grounds of confidentiality.

In a letter to Mr Jacobs, chief inspector David Bell acknowledged the report had caused distress but pointed out that none of the senior managers had been named by inspectors.

He said procedures allowed and accounted for the possibility that current senior staff might want to scapegoat their predecessors. But he said including former staff when compiling reports was impractical.

However, he finally sanctioned a meeting between Mr Jacobs and Ofsted's head of post-compulsory education, David Singleton.

That, too, failed to convince the inspectors the report was flawed. Mr Singleton wrote to Mr Jacobs: "I find the judgment sound. It is based on a range of sources, including the work of the inspection team, the work of officers from the National PFA (Provider Financial Assurance) division of the LSC (Learning and Skills Council) and the college's own assessment of its work, including a self-assessment report of 2000-2001.

"That in no way accuses you of personal incompetence but to spend well over pound;10 million of public money and not meet the full range of your objectives can fairly be called not good management."

In a statement to FE Focus, an Ofsted spokeswoman said: "Ofsted has responded to Mr Jacobs's written complaints in some detail, and senior staff also met with him to discuss his complaints. However, Ofsted was not persuaded that its original judgment was unsound."

Jim Knight, MP for Dorset South, who was closely involved with the redevelopment at Weymouth and whose daughter is starting A-level studies at the college in September, said: "Malcolm raises an interesting issue for Ofsted. I do not think Ofsted acted inappropriately in terms of its remit.

Where you have a change of management and the inspectors are critical of former managers, it is worth asking the question as to whether the individual has a right to put their case before the final report is published."

Others remain to be convinced. Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management, said: "It is unfortunate when it is a critical inspection but I have sympathy with the inspectors in that you can only go so far. Involving former employees is, I think, questionable."

David Sherlock, Adult Learning Inspectorate chief inspector, said: "I don't know how in practical terms you would go about it. How do you know who would want to be contacted? How would you find them?"

Rosemary Clark, quality manager at the Association of Colleges, said: "The ability to change anything once it is in draft form is very limited. It has to be concrete evidence. If inspectors are finding things are not good, they will have evidence to back it up."

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