5th February 2016 at 00:00
That sinking feeling

Room for improvement

In a heavily publicised speech to the Centre Forum thinktank last month, Ofsted supremo Sir Michael Wilshaw ruffled some feathers in FE (quelle surprise) by making yet more disparaging remarks about the sector. When asked whether FE was improving, he said: “Inspections from this term show that little progress is being made in turning this decline around.” But is his opinion shared across Ofsted?

FErret decided to have a quiet word with the inspectors themselves. There is, it appears, disquiet in the ranks. One said: “Constantly repeating the message that there’s room for improvement piles on the pressure for college mergers – which is what [FE and skills minister Nick] Boles wants.”

Another suggested there was possibly some “jiggery-pokery” in the use of the “requires improvement” grade in reports. There was even talk of extra departmental grades having been included in reports, with the effect of bringing down the overall grade. Even colleges making great gains, with outstanding provision, sometimes end up looking below par. Any examples? “Stafford College, which had majority good and outstanding performance and was still marked down.”

Others said that they had been required to indicate that “too few students have work experience as part of their study programme” – even though the inspection had taken place in early October, when it was too early to be a priority in any college.

But it was a refrain uttered by more than one person that threw light on other concerns within the upper echelons of Ofsted. One fear perceived to be driving the get-tough approach was that ministers were considering taking apprenticeships and adult FE outside Ofsted’s remit. That would indeed be a big loss of business for the inspectorate.

A sinking ship?

No one would call it rats jumping from a sinking ship – that’s an ugly cliché. However, few people will have missed the fact that a huge number of departures are in the offing among top bods in FE. It started with Dr Lynne Sedgmore retiring from her role as executive director of 157 Group; the next departure in a growing list will be Michael Davis, head of UKCES.

One senior figure at the Association of Colleges speaking to FErret was surprisingly frank in suggesting possible reasons why. “The challenges facing membership bodies, including the AoC, are many,” he said. They include the hugely variable regional approaches that are already coming about in preparation for the devolution agenda, and “the imposition of area reviews that no-one wants and are certain to be a screw-up”.

So it will be harder to chase the cash, and with the collapse down to around 200 colleges through mergers, there will be even less money around. And with UKCES facing a oblivion, as FErret revealed last week, is there any hope for quangos in the sector? “I’m not sure there is a significant future for them.”

But is the troubling landscape really why so many big names in FE are quitting? FErret asked. The answer was: “You may say that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

As a reminder, the list of quitting bigwigs is long. In addition to Sedgmore and Davis, David Igoe quit the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association; Bob Powell left Holex; Martin Doel is leaving AoC to take a professor’s chair at UCL; Stewart Segal is leaving the Association of Employment and Learning Providers to take up a new role at training provider Aspire Achieve Advance (3aaa).

This all begs the question: who will be off next? FErret reckons it’s worth opening a book on this. Any takers?

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