Journey after judgment day

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Bexley college principal Bridget Boreham talks to Joe Clancy about her shock at Ofsted's scathing assessment of her leadership

A college principal this week told FE Focus of her "shock and devastation" when inspectors delivered the worst possible verdict on her leadership.

Bexley college in Kent was awarded the lowest grade, five, for leadership and management. It was described as "very poor" in a report published today.

Inspectors also judged the college to be inadequate and said it provided poor value for money, rating three of nine curriculum areas very weak, and three more unsatisfactory.

But Bridget Boreham, Bexley's principal since 2001, said she refuses to be bowed by the scathing report, and expressed her determination to lead the college out of the crisis.

She said: "It is very dispiriting. It is much worse than my worst nightmare. I wake up some mornings and wonder who in their right minds would want to be a college principal.

"But I really believe in this place and I am passionate about making people's lives better. I am not going to let an Office for Standards in Education inspection put me off my life's goal."

She said she found the Ofsted judgment on the college's performance "bewildering", as previous external reviews had forecast a different result.

The funding body, the Learning and Skills Council, conducted a performance review "and the feedback was that we were adequate, and they gave positive feedback on leadership and management".

She also hired consultants, part-time inspectors themselves, from the Association of Colleges to carry out a mock inspection beforehand. "The grades that the consultants gave were two grades above the Ofsted grades in three significant areas," she said. "That's why the Ofsted report was such a shock.

"All the external indicators left me thinking I would get a couple of grade fours at worst. It was devastating to get three grade fives and three grade fours.

"Our self-assessment was based on those external indications and Ofsted used that to beat us around the head even more. They said that we did not know our own weaknesses and that it reflected on our leadership and management.

"The lead inspector kept saying he did not accept the results of the consultants because they were not as vigorous. It seemed to me that they had raised the bar in assessing us.

"I can't believe we are this bad. I believe the inspectors saw some bad teaching on the Monday morning and developed a mindset by Monday afternoon that was extremely difficult to get them to shed, despite evidence to the contrary."

She pointed to the college's improving results as an indication that progress was being made. The A-level pass rate was 78 per cent and the college's GCSE results were "the best ever".

She said that the Ofsted report has had "savage consequences". The college has lost its CoVE (Centre of Vocational Excellence) status in two areas, in health care and in plumbing and electrical installation, and has also lost its contract for providing an Entry to Employment (E2E) programme.

Those losses have cost the college around pound;500,000 in funding. It also loses out on 2.5 per cent extra funding for being a satisfactory college, costing it a further pound;250,000.

It has axed its GCSE provision and all its academic A-level provision, and will concentrate instead on vocational courses.

She said it was very disappointing for the college to be given a grade five for construction, when pound;2.1 million had been invested in new buildings.

"We have suffered from problems with staff recruitment, because plumbers and bricklayers earn twice as much as we can pay.

"Around half of our instructors had been recently appointed and, though they knew their trade, they were still learning how to be teachers. But Ofsted felt that managers had not done enough to develop them into teachers."

She also felt Ofsted's criticism of its E2E provision was "harsh". She said: "The LSC was very happy with it. We had 24 students and some of them hadn't been to school since they were 11.

"Ofsted didn't feel there was enough progression to vocational tasters, which is strange because when the inspectors were here the youngsters were on work experience. We are at a loss to understand their judgment." She is also proud that electronics giant Fujitsu selected Bexley over rival colleges to train unemployed people to work for them.

The college's "bus lane" to provide people with the language skills needed to become bus drivers has, she said, been emulated across London.

She added: "We are on a journey. We have come from a low base with a lot of financial problems. It takes time to see improvements coming through.

"We felt we were a satisfactory college trying to become a good one and we were making progress, more than we were given credit for. I have the full support of my governing body to continue on that journey."

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