No apologies for tough talk
David Bell is not generally known for pulling punches when describing the performance of colleges.
Last year, the head of the Office for Standards in Education caused outrage when he said it was "a national disgrace" that 11 per cent of colleges had failed their inspections.
This year, with just four of the 94 colleges inspected being judged inadequate, would he take the opportunity to praise the sector for its improvement? Not a bit of it.
"We should not overestimate where we are," he told FE Focus this week.
"There are still issues for further education to face up to.
"We are still talking about 4 per cent of colleges being inadequate and 5 per cent of teaching being unsatisfactory.
"We must also take into account that it was the final year of the inspection cycle and we would have assumed that the weaker colleges were seen first. We brought forward those colleges that we had concerns about.
The stronger group of colleges were visited in the 2004-5 sample."
Being a key speaker at the Association of Colleges' conference in Birmingham next week, he might have tried to curry favour with the principals by praising colleges' performance in advance.
After all, 52 of the 94 inspected this year were rated good and six colleges, a record under Ofsted, were rated outstanding.
Instead, he chose to focus on the "distinct pockets of weakness" in curriculum areas such as construction, information communications technology, and basic skills.
"Construction and ICT are two really important areas for the economy, and it is quite a concern that these are generally weaker," he added.
He accepted that there are difficulties in recruiting good-quality teachers in these areas, but he said the best colleges have found innovative solutions. "Some colleges enter into interesting partnerships with employers," he said. "Perhaps colleges need to stress that people can get a lot of pride in helping to produce the next generation of electricians and plumbers."
He also conceded that, in attracting basic skills teachers, there are "difficulties in getting the right calibre of staff to work in challenging environments".
He added: "People returning to learning have anxieties because they don't have basic skills. It remains a worry that we don't have the right calibre of staff teaching these students.
"There is no easy answer. Colleges are subject to market forces. Basic skills work in colleges is not the most glamorous."
Teaching standards in ICT also caused him concern. "There is huge competition for high-quality staff and colleges may have to take account of the fact that people may not want to be full-time lecturers.
"A lot of people with ICT skills set up their own business. Maybe one alternative is for colleges to offer them a teaching role for one or two days a week which they can fit round running their business. That can be an attractive option for people."
Mr Bell does, however, praise the way colleges have responded to inspectors' criticisms.
"More encouraging is the extent to which improvement has been brought about following critical inspections first time around," he said. "Those colleges identified as unsatisfactory early in the programme have now been identified as doing very well.
"Nothing drives improvement more than the certainty of re-inspection.
Colleges recognise that the inspectors mean business and that they are coming back.
He cited the case of Southwark college, rated inadequate first time round, but described as good when re-inspected last year.
"Its curriculum grades improved and leadership and management improved.
Generally the college is doing a better job. That's the value of inspection."
Mr Bell also recognised that colleges have had to respond to the Ofsted's focus being on teaching and learning, as opposed to on auditing as it was under the Further Education Funding Council.
"The focus on teaching and learning has had a very positive impact on the experience of the student," he said. "We have not pulled our punches and we have been prepared to give the sector some very hard messages as well as some positive messages.
"Most of those curriculum areas we have identified as being weak have been improved. All credit must be given to colleges for taking on the chin some pretty tough messages.
"I think we can look back with pride on what has been achieved in the past four years."
He admits to being slightly embarrassed that, after he issued a report last year explaining why colleges in the North perform better than in the South, the next three colleges to be rated outstanding were all in the South.
"It just shows that, if you have a good theory, it can be blown out of the water by reality," he said.
"The more important issue was for colleges to be clear about their mission.
Successful colleges had a rigorously clear sense of what they were going to do, while failing colleges tended to flounder around doing lots of things."
Now Ofsted is moving onto a light-touch system of inspections where only struggling colleges will undergo detailed scrutiny.
"Inspection ceases to have value if it inspects the very best institutions in the same way as all other institutions," he said.
"The improvement you get in the best colleges by going back time after time is marginal, but if you focus on the weaker colleges you drive forward improvement in a much more substantial way."