OFSTED role in colleges reduced as industrialists threaten skills council boycott. Ian Nash reports.
SWEEPING powers proposed for chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead in the post-16 White Paper were dropped after Government advisers threatened to rebel.
College leaders believe that Mr Woodhead and his team will reverse gains made by colleges on more rigorous accreditation, self-evaluation and quality assurance they say the sector needs, and has been developing. The appointment of the Office for Standards in Education as college overseer, provoked unprecedented hostility from college leaders and staff organisations.
A senior official at the Further Education Funding Council told The TES:
"There was a huge negative reaction to the inspection proposals from college principals, as soon as the announcement was made. The rest of the White Paper was reasonably well received."
Their concern stems from the limited powers that the Department for Education and Employment has over the autonomous inspectorate - an autonomy jealously guarded by Mr Woodhead.
Mr Woodhead's post-16 powers were to be considerably greater - taking over the role of the Training Standards Council - until top industrialists lobbied Tony Blair.
Nick Reilly, chair of the council and of Vauxhall Motors, and Bob Reid, former British Rail boss and the FEFC Quality Council chair, opposed Mr Woodhead's appointment.
Both serve on Permanent Secretary Michael Bichard's education and employment advisory group. A senior source close to ministers said: "If you have OFSTED doing the lot, you can say goodbye to any industrial involvement."
The role of the TSC was saved after Mr Reilly lobbied the Prime Minister directly. It will check industry standards as part of the inspectorate under the adult committee of the proposed Learning and Skills Council for England, a pound;5 billion super-quango to replace the FEFC and training and enterprise councils.
Mr Woodhead will be restricted to inspecting full-time courses for 16 to 19-year-olds. All adult and part-time courses will come under another wing of the inspectorate.
But many FE leaders remain suspicious and one said: "The lack of DFEE influence over him seems to be a fundamental problem."
David Melville, FEFC chief executive, this week confirmed the level of hostility expressed to Mr Woodhead's appointment. But he urged against over-reacting.
There have already been joint OFSTEDFEFC inspections, he said. Top-level talks between Jim Donaldson, FEFC chief inspector, and Mr Woodhead were underway and both organisations were due to have meetings to thrash-out the implications of the White Paper within a few weeks.
Professor Melville said: "There has to be a new model for OFSTEd to work with and one that fits with post-16 needs.
"There are contradictions to be ironed out. The role of the college inspector is very supportive - following-through post-inspection action plans."
In his annual lecture in 1996, Mr Woodhead quoted an FEFC report which said that inspectors investigating American community colleges found "mounting criticism of accreditation and self-review arrangements" because they were "increasingly seen to lack rigour and to be failing to assure quality and standards."
He warned against arguments in favour of a greater reliance on institutional self-review. "We must recognise that inspection evidence does not show us many schools that are identifying and facing up to real weaknesses in a rigorous and honest way," he said.