Shorter, sharper inspections shine in pilot

11th June 2010 at 01:00
Colleges praise Estyn's new week-long regime covering all bases, including greater student consultation

Changes to the post-16 inspection regime in Wales have gone down well with colleges according to feedback following the first pilots.

Coleg Powys and Merthyr Tydfil College were invited to pilot the new post- 16 inspections system introduced by Welsh inspectorate Estyn. Powys's report has recently been published and Merthyr's is due later this year. The new inspections are due to be rolled out nationally in September.

Estyn's decision to change post-16 inspections followed a review initiated two years ago that found an appetite for clearer, more easily accessible reports reflecting what students thought about their learning. There was also demand for shorter, sharper inspections, and more reliance on provider self-evaluation.

As a result the new inspections are a week long and cover all aspects of colleges' provision: further education; work-based learning; and adult and community learning. Previously, each college would have separate inspections for each area, with FE alone lasting a fortnight and the other two areas commanding up to a week each.

Barry Norris, Estyn's lead inspector for FE, said that the aim was to use colleges' own self-assessments as the departure point for inspections, rather than ignoring existing self-assessments and reassessing all college provision from scratch with each inspection.

Mr Norris said: "Colleges felt they were endlessly managing inspections. They wanted a one-stop shop for inspections, so we decided to bring all the inspections of college work together. It's now one week when we do everything.

"Colleges had initial concerns that the new inspections would be skirting round the edges. But we do drill down into the strata of a college and pull up a core sample.

"From this you can see whether that matches what a college is saying about itself. If there is dissonance then we start to drill down deeper and broader and start asking questions and seeking evidence."

The new inspections are announced with four weeks' notice, rather than a term ahead under the old system. They allow managers less time to plan, arguably giving inspectors a better insight into what institutions are really like.

Students are also consulted far more widely than before. "What was interesting was the dynamic that this created," Mr Norris said. "Students would suddenly come up to us and tell us something else."

There was also a switch away from using subject experts inspecting specific curriculum areas. Inspectors mostly assessed lessons in which they had no expertise - the idea being that they were there to assess the pedagogy and learning environment.

Powys was judged "good" overall, with "adequate" prospects for improvement. The Powys inspection team, which in this case comprised eight HMI and eight peer inspectors, sought answers to three key questions, asking about the quality of outcomes, provision, and leadership and management.

They looked at ten quality indicators, including standards, well-being, learning experience, teaching, learning environment and leadership. The four judgements they could have reached - excellent, good, adequate or inadequate - replaced the previous five-point numerical scale.

Sian Pinner, assistant principal for quality development and student services at Powys, said that the four-week notice period had been a challenge but that it had been possible.

"The good thing about it was the learner involvement. In the past, we managed to select groups of students but this time I did not have the power to select these. I think it gives a much better reflection of where a college is actually at.

"Staff found it very different to have the self-analysis drive the inspectors' lines of inquiry. It meant not everyone was inspected, and I had people coming to me at the end of the week asking why they hadn't had a visit."

She added that she had been concerned about whether the inspectors would be able to judge the college in such a short space of time, but said: "I must admit that they got us spot on."

She continued: "I am happier with the new arrangements having been through the pilot. Colleges have to accept that this is different and that they cannot deal with it in the same way."

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