Over the past 20 years, colleges I've worked at have been through various inspections and judged against various frameworks and criteria. At the end of each inspection, the college's key strengths have been identified and, in most cases, the key areas for improvement have been confirmed. There were moments of disagreement, when my staff and I were certain that an inspection team had got something wrong, but generally each report proved to be a useful document to share with governors and staff in order to engineer changes and improvements.
So, despite the negativity that external inspection can attract, it is useful to consider its benefits to further education.
Since 2007, many colleges have worked with two external inspection systems: Ofsted and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). The strengths of a national inspection system for colleges are well known: it assures students, stakeholders and taxpayers that high-quality education is on offer and provides a national focus for raising standards. It also enables the leaders of institutions to receive objective - and sometimes difficult - feedback on our professional work. Despite a robust and mature system of self-assessment in most colleges, it will always be hard for colleagues to give the honest criticism that is sometimes necessary if the college, or elements of it, are to improve further.
Ofsted remains the biggest "brand" in publicly funded English education, contributing to numerous newspaper headlines and political speeches. Since being established in 1992, it has remained at the forefront of the national education debate, whether the chief inspector has been high- or low-profile and whichever inspection framework has been in use.
I cannot ever remember Ofsted being popular with teaching staff, school and college leaders, professional associations or trade unions. But the idea of external inspection is so firmly entrenched that no major political party is suggesting it should be scrapped. Ofsted is here to stay, whatever you think of it.
But what of the QAA's place in FE? It was set up in 1997 as an independent body tasked with improving the quality of higher education in the UK. The QAA monitors quality in universities and colleges primarily through external peer reviews, which I have found to be particularly constructive, and it also regulates the quality of the Access to Higher Education Diploma offered in many colleges. But the Higher Education Funding Council for England recently announced that it was putting the work of quality improvement out to tender, so the future of the QAA is uncertain from 2017.
At my college, we have adopted much of the QAA approach in our internal inspections of both further and higher education provision. Peer review needs to be encouraged and developed in colleges to reflect their growing autonomy and maturity.
Making the switch
Despite pinpointing the benefits of these inspection systems, I still advocate change. Given the permanence of Ofsted and the impending changes at the QAA, the time is right to refine the national inspection of education. Why not give Ofsted the remit for inspecting provision for children and young people aged 0-18 - childminders, nurseries, state and independent schools, and colleges - and ask the QAA, or whichever body replaces it, to inspect all adult, HE and employer-led learning and skills establishments? Such a system would provide a common framework, a level playing field and a coherent inspection system across all providers for students up to the age of 18, with a separate system for HE and adults.
This new post-19 quality improvement system would monitor standards across all types of publicly funded learning, including universities, colleges, training providers and employer-led pilots. Apprenticeships would be a key focus of their work. The new inspectorate would have a significant employer voice, and would promote employability and lifelong learning.
It seems clear that after the general election in May, public expenditure will have to be reduced further. To enhance consistency across pre- and post-18, why not have two funding bodies, not three, housed in one government department, not two? This would offer savings and coherence. It would also reflect a society in which all young people must be in compulsory learning until the age of 18, and which provides various options for adults, including universities, that should all offer employability skills.
It would be straightforward, logical and efficient - something for politicians and policymakers to ponder between now and May, perhaps.
Richard Atkins is principal of Exeter College and president of the Association of Colleges