There is not a lot of disagreement between Ofsted, the FEFC and the Training and Skills Council, the chief inspector for schools told the Association of College Management. Nadine Cartner reports.
All college teachers and their managers whose classes are observed are likely to be told their grades when Chris Woodhead, the Ofsted chief, takes over inspection of colleges next year. Such reforms, he insists, would assist proper discussions aimed at college improvement. But personal grades would not be published in the final report.
Mr Woodhead said the focus on teacher performance and student achievement was a strength of the Ofsted system. Speaking to the winter council meeting of the Association for College Management in Chester, he hinted strongly that he would like the same in college inspections.
This was the first time he had met an FE organisation publicly to express his ideas since the Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, proposed to hand control of post-16 inspections to a partnership of Ofsted and a new Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI).
At the centre of his ideal framework would be the observation and assessment of the quality of teaching and learning, drawing directly on the evidence of school inspections. Ofsted's contribution to raising standards was a result of its determined focus on teaching standards, Mr Woodhead said. "Precise and open judgements about teaching are important."
Proposed reforms of the sector in the Learning and Skills Bill now going through Parliament will give Ofsted control of inspecting all 16-19 full-time students. The new adult inspectorate will be responsible for post-19 college students and workplace training.
Preparation of a common post-16 inspection framework - a draft of which will be published in the summer - has already begun in meetings between Ofsted, the Training and Skills Council and the Further Education Funding Council Inspectorate. "There is not a lot of disagreement," he said.
His thinking on new inspection arrangements was still developing. Debate with the sector was essential to his conclusions, he added. But he gave the association the clearest view to date of the balance he wants between the existing system and the Ofsted version.
He hinted that the appointment of college "nominees" to inspection teams would be retained - possibly with changes to their role. Despite his reputation for being opposed to self-assessment - a central part of the FEFC system - he also insisted that "self-evaluation was essential".
Moreover, he gave surprising reassurances over the role of full-time and professional inspectors. There were fears that he would replace the FEFC system with that used in schools, where inspections are contracted out. But he told the meeting: "I don't think Ofsted will replicate the contracted out market of school inspections."
Mr Woodhead agreed that the use of part-time registered inspectors whose first job was teaching could be valuable. But again, there was a note of caution. Evidence suggested that "they need to do at least one inspection each term to avoid getting rusty. And there is also the problem that when lecturers are inspecting they cannot be lecturing."
But he was most forceful on the need to focus on teacher and student performance. For example, the implications for colleges of the inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence were raised. Mr Woodhead replied:
"Inspectors need to come to a view about whether a college is developing the full potential of students irrespective of ethnic background." One step towards this, he said, was to assemble data that correlates achievement with ethnicity. "The issue has to have a higher profile."
From the first cycle of new style inspections in 2001, inspectors will "look widely across the college and create a good evidence base", Mr Woodhead said. And he asked: "What constitutes a reasonable sample on the basis of which you can assemble valid evidence?" He strongly implied that discussions about the new framework would look hard at whether a sufficient proportion of a college's work was inspected under the present arrangements.
His views raised questions about the status of existing inspection evidence. This is still to be resolved as Mr Woodhead and his counterparts - Jim Donaldson at the FEFC and David Sherlock at the TSC - draft the new framework.
If the evidence is deemed inadequate then the implication is that colleges who have earned the much sought after accredited status - that gives them a lighter inspection load and greater independence from official scrutiny - may find that it lapses next April. He admitted that he had not finalised his view on accredited status.
On college nominees, Mr Woodhead said: "It is essential that the inspection team has a point of reference, someone to relate to." But the fullest possible dialogue was needed between inspectors and colleges as inspections and judgments develop. "It is essential that dialogue should not be confined to the nominee." In particular: "The principal's perspective is very central." He also questioned the presence of the nominee at all meetings of the inspection team, speculating that "this might inhibit free and frank discussion".
On self-assessment, he recognised there was considerable anxiety. He sought to reassure colleges that he would not undermine self-evaluation and internal quality assurance. "Colleges know their own organisation best," he said. But, the fresh perspective of an external team is critical. "Self-assessment and external assessment are not in conflict - you need both."
External inspections were important for three reasons, he said. First, as a mechanism of accountability to the community, they tested not only exam data and educational achievement, but also the social, moral, spiritual, and cultural contribution of the school or college. Second: "All of us need our values and assumptions questioned." Inspection offered this, casting a fresh eye on procedures and processes. Finally, inspection was a strategy for getting the "depth of information and the full picture" on which to inform and advise politicians.
Partnership between inspection teams and colleges was valuable. It must come, he added from "real dialogue - not cosiness". Ofsted's strength is its "emphasis on quality and observation of teaching". Colleges with a mixture of 16 to 19 students and adults would not be subject to multiple inspections, he said. "It's quite unacceptable to have colleges burdened with two distinct inspection systems." Joint teams of inspectors from ALI and Ofsted would carry out inspections together, he said. "The balance of the team will depend on the nature of provision." For sixth-form colleges nearly all inspectors would be from Ofsted, whereas in largely adult institutions, the ALI would dominate.
Where joint teams inspect, Ofsted would lead the reporting. For example:
"Cross-college elements of provision (such as student support) will continue to be looked at", but the inspectors must arrive at a single view, he said. "Ofsted has been given editorial responsibility."
Colleges may get shorter notice of inspections. Mr Woodhead believes too much notice can create tension and stress. When there are months of notice, "I hear lay people asking 'How do you know you're seeing the real thing'?" He wants a huge reduction in paperwork. "There is a great deal of annoyance at bureaucracy. Teaching and training and leadership are what really matter." The switch to new arrangements should create the opportunity to cut a swathe through bureaucracy, even to the point of including an auditor on each inspection team, he said.
Nadine Cartner is education officer at the Association for College Management
TIMETABLE FOR THE OFSTED TAKEOVER.
June 1999. White Paper published. Summer 1999Ofsted to be given control of college inspections (16 to 19). New adult inspectorate to run post-19. Autumn 1999 Decisions announced on the location of the Learning and Skills Council and boundaries of the 47 local arms. Spring 2000. Chief of Adult Learning Inspectorate to be announced. Summer 2000Chair and chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council to be appointed. First draft of new inspection framework published. Summer 2000. LSC begins recruiting. Early 2001The LSC operates in parallel with existing bodies. Inspection framework out for consultation. April 2001. The Learning and Skills Council is fully operational. New inspectorate takes control soon afterwards.