Colleges miss the watchdog if it doesn’t come sniffing

11th December 2015 at 00:00

“Riverside Training is a grade 1 outstanding training provider,” the website of the independent provider boasts, quite correctly.

What the website doesn’t point out is that this “outstanding” grade on which its reputation is founded is based on an inspection that was carried out more than a decade ago.

This was so long ago, it even pre-dates Ofsted’s involvement in the FE and skills sector. Remember the Adult Learning Inspectorate, anyone?

While this may be an extreme example, Riverside is by no means unusual in continuing to rely on its past glories, in terms of inspection results at least. And it has no choice in this. Even providers that genuinely want a fresh Ofsted MOT to confirm their continued excellence are out of luck. Indeed, only those that prove to be a cause for concern can jump the queue to secure a return visit from the inspectors.

For FE staff who have recently undergone the stress of an inspection, life without Ofsted must sound like bliss. But it’s a double-edged sword.

Truro and Penwith College hasn’t had The Call since 2006, but principal David Walrond talks of the hard work needed to “guard against the risk of complacency” (see article opposite).

Earlier this year, Rosemary Cook, headteacher of Combs Infant School in Derbyshire – also last inspected in 2006 – told TES about the stress of waiting for the phone to ring. “People think being outstanding for so long sounds lovely, but it’s actually very hard – there’s nowhere to go apart from down,” she said. “We’re always ready for Ofsted; that can be very wearing and stressful. The paperwork is always ready and up to date.”

But without handing Ofsted a significantly higher budget – unlikely in the current climate – the inspectorate’s risk-based approach of focusing its resources on providers that it feels need the most urgent scrutiny is hard to disagree with.

More open to question is how Ofsted utilises its inspectors during the course of an inspection. Since I was appointed TES’ FE editor this summer, the issue we have covered that has attracted the most debate – even bearing in mind the area reviews and repeated announcements of funding cuts – is the thorny subject of graded lesson observations.

Research in this area by Matt O’Leary, a reader in education at Birmingham City University, has proved to be highly influential. Earlier this year, Ofsted finally announced that it was to stop grading lesson observations in its inspections.

Two years after completing his seminal piece of research on the subject, Dr O’Leary reflects on how attitudes in the sector have changed since then (see pages 46-47) – and how, in some cases, old habits die hard. Ofsted may have stopped issuing grades to evaluate individual lessons observed by inspectors, but Dr O’Leary argues that many in the sector have got so used to observation being a “performance-ranking exercise” that they cannot grasp its potential to be used for improving performance in a supportive manner.

But, Dr O’Leary says, there is hope: staff are learning to “break free from the shackles of performative lesson observations and have begun to redefine and reclaim observation as a powerful tool for teacher growth”.

Intriguingly, this mirrors the evolution of Ofsted in recent months. By opening up a regular and genuinely two-way dialogue with the sector by, for instance, engaging with the #ukfechat community and embracing the opportunities afforded by Twitter for direct interaction with the profession, the inspectorate is making some progress in shedding its reputation as a stuffy old institution.

But, of course, the best way for Ofsted to explain how it has changed this is through its agents in the field: inspectors. And if some providers haven’t met an inspector in a decade, there’s little wonder why many still view the watchdog with suspicion.


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