It has been praised repeatedly by education secretary Michael Gove as a "model" that others should follow and as a rival to private education. But Barnfield College's outstanding rating has been stripped from it by Ofsted, which has now rated the college at grade 3.
The decision comes just two months after Mr Gove endorsed the college's proposal to run its own independent schools, telling The Sunday Times: "I think Pete (Birkett, the principal) would not just give some independent schools a run for their money, he would out-compete them."
In November, Mr Gove visited the college and its federation of academies, spending three hours observing lessons and meeting students. "What Barnfield has shown students is that you can do better and you can go further," he said. "What Pete Birkett has done is truly amazing - he has created an education model that others should follow. I am here to learn from him."
But now inspectors have highlighted a decline in success rates for young people on long courses, taking them below the national average. In other respects, such as teaching and learning, they said the college's performance was satisfactory, although they added that staff failed to challenge students sufficiently to reach their potential.
While Ofsted praised the college's "ambitious vision" as the centre of a federated network of schools, it said leadership and management were only satisfactory overall. "It is only in the current year that actions to strengthen and improve performance at the college are beginning to have a positive impact on reversing the decline in younger learners' success rates and on apprenticeships," inspectors said. "The college's judgements of its own performance are overgenerous."
Mr Birkett said that the college had addressed problems with success rates in some areas last year and that he expects results to have improved this summer. "We are a 'no excuse' organisation and this outcome does not represent the college's performance as a whole," he said. "It is correct that there were areas of activity in the last academic year that required attention. This was fixed in this academic year and I'm sure will be reflected in this year's outcomes that will be known in three weeks' time. We take all audits very seriously and we will learn from this one and raise our game even further."
Barnfield is just the latest of many colleges to be downgraded in recent inspections. Matthew Coffey, director of learning and skills at Ofsted, said that half of colleges had dropped a grade or more since September. In recent months, the trend has accelerated, with about two-thirds of the inspections in 2012 resulting in a decline.
But Mr Coffey said that this was not entirely unexpected, since Ofsted chooses which institutions to inspect based on an assessment of risk, so they are more likely to be in decline.
He denied that the standards of inspection had changed ahead of the new framework in September, and said that Sir Michael Wilshaw's criticism of teaching in FE was based on Ofsted's inspection evidence, including last year's annual report. While complaints about inspections had increased, they remained low - "under the 10 per cent mark".
A Department for Education spokeswoman declined to comment on the discrepancy between Ofsted's judgements and Mr Gove's praise of Barnfield. She said that the education secretary would have been addressing particular aspects of provision he admired and that it was "ridiculous" to compare his impressions from a visit with a formal inspection.
Gove v Ofsted on Barnfield:
Gove: "Success is all about leadership and the team that work within the Barnfield Federation are up for that challenge."
Ofsted: "Leadership and management are satisfactory as it is only in the current year that actions to strengthen and improve performance at the college are beginning to have a positive impact on reversing the decline in younger learners' success rates and on apprenticeships."
Gove: "What Barnfield has shown students is that you can do better and you can go further."
Ofsted: "Good examples of lessons and training were seen on inspection, but a significant proportion did not focus sufficiently on ensuring that students were clear (about) what they should be learning and achieving. They also failed to challenge students sufficiently well to achieve their potential."