FEfocus Editorial - Fees will erode value of Ofsted inspections

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

Once upon a time, the idea of a school or college paying Ofsted to inspect them might have been something The TES would have run as an April Fool's joke. However, rest assured, our story this week (page 30) is an entirely genuine one.

Inspection tends to be seen at best as necessary, but a necessary evil - the educational equivalent of visiting the dentist. At worst, it is seen as on par with inviting vampires into your house.

So unless colleges have been afflicted by some sort of educational Stockholm syndrome, there is a need for an explanation as to why the inspectorate imagines there would be any takers for its cash-for- inspections plan.

Does it, in fact, mark a change in the view of Ofsted from colleges? There is certainly no doubt of the marketing value of an "outstanding" rating. Colleges love to festoon their websites with badges and accolades, and the Ofsted rating is probably the award that is best understood and most respected by the public.

But really what seems to drive this is a quirk of an inspection system which was intended to be less of a burden on colleges. The "light touch" regime means a six-year wait if you are rated good: fine if you plan to stay at the same level, but rather an obstruction if your governing body asks for a five-year plan to become outstanding.

There is also an obvious opportunity for colleges which were outstanding but stumble temporarily. It is easy to imagine the frustration somewhere like the College Of Haringey, Enfield and North East London, which slipped a grade after a merger. That caused embarrassment among the 157 Group, which prided itself on its members' outstanding status. Now the college can potentially redeem itself more quickly.

But the 157 Group also sees the obvious danger: if the college becomes a customer of Ofsted, then independent judgment is harder to guarantee. Among other things, this will erode the value of the inspection that Ofsted seeks to exploit.

Put together, some of Ofsted's policy changes seem opportunistic, to say the least. Step one: reduce the frequency of a public service. Step two: charge people to receive the service at a greater frequency. Step three: profit!

There is no doubt that this train of thought was not the one being followed by Ofsted. The decisions were made in sequence, but independently and for different reasons. But the overall effect is to try to force colleges to pay for something that previously came as standard.

It is not yet known just how much Ofsted intend to charge. Then again, if it is not a substantial amount, why bother? If it is substantial, and it becomes an significant item on the balance sheet, then it is impossible to imagine that inspectors will be able to escape the commercial pressure of transforming those good colleges that are keen enough to pay into outstanding ones.

At the very least, it looks bad. The standing that Ofsted has with the public now comes because it is believed to be independent, not just some hack consultancy. If there is a case for an early inspection, because of unexpectedly rapid improvement or a surprising decline, then it should be made on educational grounds, not for cash.

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