When is a no-notice inspection not a no-notice inspection? When Ofsted rings you just beforehand to check if it is a good time to visit. That is the situation facing colleges and training providers after inspectors realised that the unique circumstances of FE mean that they may not be able to turn up unannounced.
No-notice inspections are at the heart of Sir Michael Wilshaw's vision for Ofsted. "It is important we see schools as they really are on the day of inspection, so we can report honestly and accurately," Sir Michael said in his first speech as chief inspector last month.
"We need an inspection process that is credible and rigorous in the eyes of the public. Ofsted's credibility will be undermined if there is any suggestion that schools can play the system and employ unprofessional practices."
The consultation on new inspection procedures, which closes in May, makes it clear that the same arrangements should apply in FE. But Ofsted has been forced to acknowledge in its proposals that there are particular "operational challenges" facing college inspections.
The difficulties are particularly acute for provision such as apprenticeships. A spokesman for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) explained that inspectors might typically visit apprentices at the employer's workplace, where they study on site. But on some days they might instead be at a training centre or at a local college studying for the technical certificate. Inspectors arriving unannounced could find that there are no students to observe.
Similar challenges prevented the adoption of no-notice inspections for colleges and training providers in 2009, when they were first introduced for schools with behaviour problems.
Ofsted is aware of persistent claims that schools or FE providers could be manipulating the system. TES has reported teachers' claims of problem pupils being packed off to Alton Towers or more capable teaching staff being brought in temporarily to improve an institution's inspection chances.
That provided the motivation for no-notice inspections, but by giving FE providers limited advance warnings, Ofsted could leave open an opportunity for sharp practice. "We are aware of the differences in FE. It will apply differently in FE because colleges have lots of different sites," an Ofsted spokeswoman said. "Some colleges have separate training provider companies and they offer education and work-based training together.
"But it will still be the shortest notice period possible. It could be that the college is called prior to the inspection and asked if there will be any people there."
If students are not on site for the provision that is under inspection, Ofsted could move to another college or training provider.
"The whole aim of this is to give people as little notice as possible so we can see the most real reflection of the teaching and learning practices," the spokeswoman added. "If you're calling up a college 15 minutes before, it's very different from giving them two weeks. Which do you think gives the most real view of teaching?"
The spokeswoman doubted that providers would mislead Ofsted by putting off an inspection without good reason, although inspectors do have a complaints procedure to deal with such cases.
The inspection body acknowledged earlier this year that it is aware of incidents where institutions "appeared to have behaved dishonestly". Between April and November last year there were 38 complaints about schools' activities during inspections.
Training providers in particular welcomed what they regarded as a pragmatic decision: they supported inspections at short notice but believed that no-notice inspections would be unworkable.
"We have to make sure that employers and learners are on site," said the spokesman for AELP. "If you're looking at apprenticeships, you have to get the views of the employers and the learners, so they have to be there."
He said he was not aware of any claims that work-based learning providers had tried to manipulate the system in the ways that schools are accused of.
In his speech announcing the proposed changes, Sir Michael said his inspections would mean there was nowhere for bad provision to hide.
"The prize is worth having: a good or better education for all our young people, with no excuses accepted," he said. Unless the students are not on site when inspectors call, that is.
NO MORE `SATISFACTORY'
Under the new inspection regime:
- Colleges and training providers will need outstanding teaching and learning to earn an overall "outstanding" grade.
- The "satisfactory" grade 3 will be replaced with "requires improvement".
- Providers on grade 3 will be re-inspected within 18 months.
- After two grade 3 inspections, the college or training provider will be downgraded to "inadequate".
- Inspections will be undertaken without giving providers advance notice.
- Anonymised details of the performance assessment of teachers will be given to Ofsted.