"Light touch" was a buzz phrase in the early noughties. Across education, Ofsted's light touch promised greater freedom from the suffocating weight of state-sponsored assessment. It promised to hand power back to the professionals.
Under the light-touch system, further education standards have improved, to the credit of providers and inspectors. Seven out of 10 colleges are now rated good or outstanding, according to Ofsted's 2007-08 report. In 2003 the proportion was closer to two-fifths.
However, there is, according to inspectors, still a significant tail of satisfactory and unsatisfactory provision in colleges: amounting to a third in 2007-08, down from 58 per cent four years before.
Furthermore, the light touch approach seemed to presage a golden age of FE self-regulation and improvement which, for a tantalising moment in time, seemed to have been realised in the shape of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service. LSIS will continue to support self-improvement in FE but self-regulation may now be more of a distant dream.
Instead, Ofsted is back with something approaching a "no more Mr Nice Guy" attitude that is antipathetic to the light touch concept. And, broadly, a return to gritty form is welcome. Halving the minimum period of notice of inspection from four to two weeks keeps providers on their toes, as will the decision to have more classroom observation. The best colleges will now go six years between visits but should alarm bells start to ring, inspection teams will arrive in force to nip problems in the bud.
It may concern some in FE that inspectors will pay more attention to students' views. A different beast, the National Student Survey in higher education, suffered early problems because the opinions of small numbers of disgruntled students risked trashing institutional and individual reputations. But, if carefully managed by inspectors, an enhanced student voice ought to benefit providers in the long term.
It is welcome that inspectors will evaluate how providers are promoting equality and diversity across staff and students. FE does well in these areas but making it count in inspections should concentrate minds further.
A final word of caution. While there is much to recommend the changes in Ofsted's inspection framework, care must be taken that the end of light touch does not mean a heavier assessment burden for FE staff.
Alan Thomson, FE Focus Editor, E: firstname.lastname@example.org.