Ofsted's new Parent View website - where parents can rate their child's school online - has been greeted with some suspicion by school heads. Until now, colleges have been able to look on smugly, knowing they are not covered by its watchful gaze.
But TES has learnt that the watchdog is developing plans for an FE-specific site. And, should the project get the green light, it is not just pushy parents who would be able to have their say: Ofsted wants to encourage employers and students to take part, with the results made available for other interested parties to see.
"It wouldn't be a route to make formal complaints ... but it would be an opportunity for individuals to be able to give their views, and they would be able to see that in real time," said Matthew Coffey, Ofsted's director of development, learning and skills. "Most importantly, the senior leaders of those institutions, and employers or providers, would be able to do exactly the same. I would expect (providers) would use that as a very valuable resource to support their own self-assessment as well."
With Ofsted increasingly taking a proportionate approach to inspections, it is focusing more and more on institutions about which concerns have been raised, often through data analysis of learners' results. Mr Coffey believes that the website would give inspectors another source of information to help them decide which colleges they feel could be in need of closer scrutiny.
"While (the proposed website) on its own wouldn't ever trigger an inspection, it does become a very useful tool when risk- assessing performance," he said. "Because of the volatility of our sector, we continue to annually risk-assess all of our providers. Where we spot any signs of a decline in their success rates, and couple that with any concerns that are being shown through their employer links or their own learners, then we start to think this provider may well be appropriate for us to turn our attention to and deploy inspection teams to."
People rating institutions on the website would have to choose between multiple-choice answers in order to minimise the risk of the system being abused by those with an axe to grind.
Mr Coffey was quick to praise the FE sector for its "robust and mature" approach to self-assessment, and offered reassurance to colleges that a glut of negative scores from anonymous complainants would not be sufficient to trigger the deployment of a hit squad of inspectors. "We would use it at the point that we come to do the risk-assessment; it wouldn't be an automated process. But it would be part of the jigsaw that the inspector who is making that decision would use," he said.
The website would be likely to include two separate lists of questions, Mr Coffey said: "one more finely tuned into the (institution's) responsiveness from the employers' point of view", and another tailored to the students who attend.
The Association of Colleges' director of education policy, Joy Mercer, fears the website could become "TripAdvisor for colleges".
"It would most likely be used by people who are cross, not those who are happy with a college," she said. "It would represent individual views, rather than collective views. We've already got the (risk-assessment) system in place with validated data. It may seem like a good idea, but how useful is it going to be?"
But Mike Hopkins, principal of Middlesbrough College, welcomed the plans. "The more we are transparent and open to our communities - whether they be students or businesses - the better that is. We are custodians of public money and they have a right to express their views on us. I trust Ofsted's ability to sift through the comments and come to the right judgment," he said.
The consultation on proposed changes to the inspection framework for learning and skills providers came to an end last week. Ofsted will digest the feedback it has received before deciding whether to proceed with its plans.
Ofsted's key proposals for the new FE inspection framework:
- Early inspections to be available - if colleges foot the bill.
- The separate "capacity to improve" grade would cease to exist.
- Greater focus on lesson observations.
- Outcomes for learners to be rated with a single grade, instead of up to seven contributory grades.
- Inspectors would look in greater detail at progression to higher-level courses and sustainable employment.