STUDENTS could be given a formal voice in college inspections under proposals being considered by OFSTED.
FE Focus can reveal that Stephen Grix, the chief inspector for post-16 education, is investigating how the views of learners can be incorporated into college inspection reports. This would provide a platform for the opinions of students who, under the Further Education Funding Council inspection regime, were consulted by inspectors on a more casual basis.
The news will be welcomed by Anne Weinstock, chief executive of the youth careers and counselling service Connexions. Speaking at the Association of Colleges' conference in Harrogate this week, she made a direct appeal to include students in the inspection process.
"There might be different ways of doing this in different areas, but we need to make sure that young people's impressions of the place where they are studying are being included in the final published inspection reports."
The move provides clear evidence of the Government's policy of putting students at the centre of the learning and skills revolution, said Mark Atkinson, the National Union of Students' spokesperson on further education.
"I am pleased at the way OFSTED, and Stephen Grix in particular, are giving priority to the interests of learners," he said. "Giving students a say in inspections will mean colleges are putting their customers first and focusing on the needs of learners.
"We need to see student unions being involved in the inspection process, and the presence of an active and healthy student union in a college should be recordedas a strength when it is inspected.
"We see Mr Grix as somebody who is genuinely student-focused and student friendly."
Mr Grix's apparent sympathy with the views of students stems from his own experience. He left school at 15 and worked as a bricklayer, studying part time at college over many years to achieve vocational and higher-level qualifications.
He left his previous job, as principal of Sir George Monoux sixth-form college in east London, to take the newly-created post. OFSTED will oversee the inspection of FE colleges, school sixth forms and the new area-wide inspections.
He told the conference that, following the departure of Chris Woodhead, there would be a "repositioning" of OFSTED, which will become less bureaucratic and "more student-centred". Jim Donaldson, outgoing chief inspector of the FEFC, said that students were already questioned on the quality of their learning experience and that this contributed to an inspector's overall judgment.
But he welcomed the idea of putting this on a more formal footing and suggested that the development could be extended to include "not just students but also industry and commerce, all those who actually come into touch with colleges".
Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union NATFHE, said that the NUS should be consulted. "It has a degree of independence as an organisation. If I was a principal I would make sure that the inspectors bump into the students I want them to bump into."
But he called for the views of working lecturers to be taken into account also.
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