Overcome your Ofsted fear – and be outstanding

13th November 2015 at 00:00
Treat the regulator as your ally in giving students a great education and you can help your college excel

It’s easy to blame Ofsted for every problem that surfaces. It’s also unsurprising, given that teachers are occasionally asked to embark on seemingly unnecessary tasks and told it’s “because of Ofsted”.

The regulator is a handy scapegoat and often inaccurately cited. In reality, it’s not out to get us. But what can practitioners do to help their institution succeed under the new inspection framework? Here are some areas to tackle:

Student focus

As much as Ofsted notionally provides support for educational organisations to improve, it exists to ensure that students are getting the quality of education they are entitled to. Let’s be very clear: Ofsted advocates for students, not teachers.

Once we come to terms with this fact, we have the option of being empowered by Ofsted, instead of terrified by it.

The common inspection framework is not an arbitrary set of tricks designed to catch us out, even if some organisations misinterpret it as just that. The framework is devised as a checklist to run parallel with the quality of teaching, personal development, leadership and management that we hope we’re already providing.

We all want to be brilliant at our jobs, so let’s move away from asking ourselves if the session, teacher or organisation is “Ofsted outstanding”. Instead, let’s concentrate on getting on with all the things that we already know constitute excellent practice, regardless of inspection.

Money worries

Will colleges not be disadvantaged by the financial pressures they are under?

The lack of funding in FE could have an impact on quality and that may affect the grade. This should be a surprise to no one. If there’s not enough money to support teachers to do their jobs properly, their jobs won’t be done properly.

Forty students in a class working at three different levels with one teacher is not ideal. It’s unrealistic to think that in those circumstances quality wouldn’t be affected. Ofsted has a responsibility to acknowledge that context, but not to make allowances for it.

As much as colleges are doing an excellent job in striving to reinvent themselves, to create efficiencies and scrabble for cash from other sources to make ends meet, they are at the beginning of that journey.

Colleges are trying to create a new kind of organisation but must acknowledge that success is rarely instant when new organisational models are explored.

English and maths

The increased focus on English and maths provision is especially relevant in the context of expanded classes, fewer teachers and unrealistic goals. But low GCSE results do not automatically mean poor results in an Ofsted inspection. There will be a line of enquiry about baseline assessments and questions on whether a lack of progress is to do with the quality of teaching.

Inspectors will look at maths and English, but in the context of skills development and considering the development of English and maths within a study programme.

If the issue is not so much about the funding for smaller classes, and more about the challenges of recruiting appropriately skilled maths and English teachers to support growing numbers of students, those challenges should be discussed with the inspector.

Targets for learning

What are Ofsted’s expectations regarding targets for learning and distance travelled? Forget Ofsted’s expectations. What are our expectations? Through rigorous initial assessment, we establish starting points to understand the breadth of previous educational experiences, skills and knowledge that our learners arrive with.

From that point we can begin to set targets that are meaningful, and which aid knowledge and understanding – essentially targets that are of benefit to the learner. Inspectors will be critical of targets that aren’t particularly useful, and we should be too.

Historically, there has been an over-reliance on success rates but the key emphasis should be on progress.

Inspectors will discuss distance travelled with teachers and with students, looking for a broad range of evidence to make an informed decision, including portfolios and workbooks.

Personal development

How should we show progress in personal development? Personal development and support is something that FE does particularly well. In schools, it focuses on compliance and rules, such as uniform. But in colleges, it’s concerned with equipping students with skills for work and adult life.

Across the board, context is everything regarding the type of provision. If yours is very specific, there will be a subject-specialist inspector to provide expertise in your inspection team.

Area reviews

What influence will Ofsted have on area reviews? The regulator is on the advisory group, not the steering group. It will be providing outcome grades of all provisions in the area including schools and sixth forms. That’s it.

Will inspections take a back seat while area reviews are taking place? No they won’t. As far as students are concerned, it’s business as usual. As Ofsted is there for students, it too will carry on as normal.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. She tweets at @MrsSarahSimons

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