Raising the stakes on attitudes does us no favours

20th July 2018 at 00:00
Inspections that grade students’ behaviour may be well-meaning, argues Ian Pryce, but colleges are not schools, and the results are likely to be perverse

Last weekend, I was invited by friends to dinner. I was pleased to inform my hosts that I thought they responded well to my input on the best wine to serve with each course but found their attitude to my helpful instructions on how better to stack the dishwasher deeply disappointing. There really isn’t any excuse for that sort of language when receiving expert and constructive feedback. It is a good job they are not currently students in a college.

Tes recently reported the intention of Ofsted to begin judging and grading the behaviour and attitudes of our students. While most of us think our approach in these areas would reflect well on further education, I still think it unnecessary and patronising.

The median age of students in colleges is probably higher than that in a university. Our college has students aged from 16 to 86, and a median age of 31. Many of our students have family responsibilities, the vast majority do at least some paid work. Every single student has made a positive choice to come to us, no one is forced to enrol. The idea their behaviour and attitude needs to be judged is ridiculous and seems to be driven by concerns being raised about behaviour in schools. We are not a school.

The role of Ofsted is to report on the effectiveness of institutions and services. This means a focus on educational outcomes and whether we deliver value for money. While behaviour and attitudes have an impact on outcomes it seems odd to want to judge these separately in isolation. Surely you would define good behaviour and attitudes as those which produce great outcomes? We don’t have separate grades for the quality of marking or other contributory factors.

Some people in colleges say we have nothing to fear from judgements in this area. Ofsted inspectors are always admirably professional in their work and would apply that professionalism to their grading. I agree colleges would get high grades for behaviour and attitudes but this misses the point. We are independent institutions accountable to our communities. It is infantile to crave external validation of what we do in this area. If our outcomes are strong nothing is added by grading behaviour and attitude. If outcomes are weak, grade these accordingly and by all means comment if the weakness is attributable to weaknesses in behaviour management for specific groups.

It does make sense in a school environment for inspectors to look at, though not necessarily judge, the extent to which schools help shape and improve the behaviour and attitudes of their relatively immature pupils. Schools often have detailed behaviour codes and reward systems that would be completely inappropriate for the more mature. The purpose of schools is partly to help people grow up. But at some point people become responsible for their own attitudes and behaviour, they become mature. The Common Inspection Framework, perhaps inevitably, seems to be making inspections very “schooly” and this does us no favours.

If Ofsted decides to grade then it will have to define good behaviour and attitudes. Why would they have the monopoly of wisdom in this area? And we know what happens when aspects of inspection get graded or new key measures are introduced. It creates a new industry of clapped-out consultants telling us all how to get a better grade. Money leaches from colleges and a new orthodoxy develops that has no basis in evidence. Many schools seem to prize conformity and love the pettiest of rules, despite the fact there is no evidence to support a link between this and educational outcomes.

Even if the motives are well-meaning the results will be perverse. It was recently reported that, in trying to accommodate diversity in matters related to transgender pupils, a school outlawed the wearing of skirts. So we see the paradox of a concern for diversity leading to uniformity.

Further education has a particular appeal to the non-conformist, the quirky, the iconoclast, the maverick. This culture needs to be preserved. It is precious. Inspections already rightly involve examining student attendance and feedback from employers. A narrower focus and raising the stakes on behaviour will lead to all sorts of silly decisions like we see in schools – acceptable haircut policies, the outlawing of jewellery and tattoos, rules on how to address teachers, greater conformity, none of which will prepare people for the real world.

Grade our outcomes, grade our effectiveness, grade our financial strength but don’t define how adults should behave, or seek to judge their attitude, except if it’s to expect sincere thanks when I demonstrate the best way to load a dishwasher of course.

Ian Pryce is principal and chief executive at the Bedford College Group

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