Students can log on to say whether or not they click
FE students have been handed new powers by Ofsted that will allow them to rate their college or training provider online - and potentially trigger an inspection if the service is not up to scratch.
Learner View, officially launched this week, can be used by students to pass judgement on the level of support and standard of teaching they are receiving, and how well they feel they are being prepared for employment.
Students can log on to answer the multiple-choice questions at any time, and will have the opportunity to answer additional "free text" questions during an inspection.
Should the site prove to be successful, Matthew Coffey, Ofsted's national director for learning and skills, said it could potentially lead to younger students also being allowed to rate their schools online.
But the service has already come in for criticism. In particular, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has questioned the need for a site that partially replicates the Skills Funding Agency's FE Choices website.
"Do we really need both?" said Joy Mercer, the AoC's director of education policy. "It's absolutely crucial for students to have a voice, but data are already being collected by colleges themselves. Did Ofsted need to invent something else?
"It would be a very poor college where they didn't routinely collect students' satisfaction levels already."
Mr Coffey insisted the new site would provide an "immediacy" that would appeal to current students, who would be able to view the results in real time.
"Learner View asks whether learners would recommend their education provision; if lessons are taught well; and if their programme or course is preparing them well enough for their chosen next steps," he said.
"This information will inform inspectors' decisions about whether courses are effective in leading learners in the right direction either to employment or further study."
But colleges have also raised concerns that a vocal minority of students could disproportionately skew the figures, given that results will be published online once a minimum of 10 responses have been submitted. While learners have to register on the site before they can take part, Ms Mercer warned that it could be manipulated by vexatious individuals. "It is often the most exercised and unhappy person that visits a website of this kind," she added.
The AoC's concerns are shared by Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. "Properly organised surveys seeking students' views are a useful tool and have consistently indicated high levels of satisfaction. It is important to get the full picture and there is a worry that this kind of approach merely invites criticism from the most disgruntled individuals," she said.
Speaking at the launch of the site, Mr Coffey confirmed that Learner View will be incorporated into Ofsted's risk assessment process for deciding which providers should be inspected.
In response to concerns that a handful of negative ratings could lead to an inspection, he insisted that Learner View would be just one of several factors the watchdog would take into account in deciding whether an inspection was necessary.
While FE providers are inspected under a different framework from schools, Ofsted is planning to look at the former's success rates - the proportion of students who complete their programme of study - in order to allow them to be compared on a "level playing field" with their neighbouring colleges.
When asked whether Learner View could be extended to schools, Mr Coffey said: "I think there's the potential for that."
The Learner View website asks FE students:
1. Would you recommend this provider to a friend?
2. Do you strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with the following statements:
My courseprogramme meets my needs.
I receive the support I need to help me to progress.
I am treated fairly.
My lessonstraining sessions are well taught.
My work is assessed regularly.
I am given feedback that helps me to improve.
My courseprogramme is preparing me for my chosen next steps.
It would be a very poor college where they didn't routinely collect students' satisfaction levels already.