Was the time when colleges were free to operate without undue interference an idyllic period? Arguably, but there were some weaknesses and there was a good deal of overlap between local colleges. It certainly seems a long time ago.
Since then, various inspection and quality regimes have been imposed, initially acting as a considerable constraint on colleges and effectively demanding a sense of uniformity across the sector.
External demands are less restrictive now than they were a decade ago. But the FE sector has not always kept up with the opportunities that self-assessment can bring. There are three such opportunities for expanding the scope of self-assessment and developing quality assurance.
First, there remains a good degree of external pressure affecting the ways colleges operate or believe they need to operate. So the sector as a whole will benefit from working together to seek further independence. Collaborating – for instance, through the Association of Colleges – is important. This is no time for 157 big cows to milk the sector (and in truth there has never been such a time).
Second, in recognition that the monolithic view of general FE was outdated even before it came into vogue, individual colleges can link their self-assessment more fully to their particular visions.
There have always been marked differences between institutions; sometimes resulting from geography and local industry, sometimes from a particular emphasis, whether craft-related or geared towards agricultural production. Now, with the sense that some colleges have a comparatively high proportion of higher education work, divergence has increased. So quality assurance regimes in colleges may be loosened and linked more directly to their purpose.
Third, the internal organisation of quality assurance, so often linked to teaching development, is flawed. Universities have more extensive quality assurance groups, with some academics seeing this as a career path. Universities also run courses for new teaching staff and CPD for more experienced ones, but these have almost always been housed in different departments to quality assurance.
Colleges, in contrast, run teaching and CPD as if it were a subset of quality; the reasons for doing so, and especially doing so now, are largely historical and unhelpful.
Moreover, yoking teaching provision and CPD for college staff together, under the harness of quality assurance, does a disservice to both. Dividing them could improve them.
Jumping the ‘hurdle’
Let’s be candid: however much external factors may be essential to allow courses to run, the arena of quality is not one that most lecturers enjoy or embrace. For many, quality assurance is a hurdle to be jumped in order to allow the “real business” to carry on in the classroom.
If we reorganise quality assurance and teaching performance, we may actually allow a broader understanding of quality demands. Quality assurance is not merely an external imposition – instead, it can be the basis for improving provision and enhancing the value of the college.
This reorganisation will be beneficial, especially as some lecturers see the link between quality and teaching as something of a threat. The fact that teaching is linked to appraisal – and appraisal may be linked to outdated blueprints of the kind of teaching inspectors used to value – just does not help.
This relatively straightforward reorganisation offers broad improvement, and the greatest gain is in the way staff view teaching and learning, and CPD.
Freer interpretations enhance the prospects of more diverse teaching – perhaps more in line with the discipline or the idiosyncrasies of staff. Lecturers in the workshop are just as likely to have maverick tendencies as senior independent school teachers. Let them have free reign to enhance the ways they interact with students in a more relevant, less limited fashion.
These gains, even of themselves, may advance the very goals of quality assurance in exciting and unanticipated ways.
Graham Fowler is an educational consultant, researcher and writer
Lesson observations: a flexible approach for a diverse curriculum
Although teaching is observed, Ofsted says it is neither judged nor graded – learning is. So there’s no external pressure on lecturers then? Well, Ofsted is at liberty to use evaluations of teaching quality that colleges may have made.
Ofsted’s claim that it has no preferred teaching style is questionable. First, the category judged is teaching, learning and assessment, which clearly gives assessment an important role. Second, Ofsted offers approval not only for learning activities but, more questionably, for the purpose of those activities being made clear from the outset. In line with traditional training models, there is a preference for structure and outcomes.
Yet Ofsted criticises colleges for inhibiting quality by using “complicated lesson plans based on managers’ requirements of a lengthy checklist for inclusion; such plans often prove rigid and cumbersome to implement”.
There may be an irony here, in that any management team looking for checklists is likely to obtain them from Ofsted documents.
Regardless of this, colleges are not responding as flexibly as they might. Does your college have a single checklist for teaching, whether it be in Esol (English for speakers of other languages), flower arranging, bricklaying or an A level in the humanities?
Hopefully not. But is there sufficient recognition of the different approaches demanded by the diverse curriculum of a general FE college?
It is not just subjects that need different treatments but lecturers, too. Some may already be outstanding, but others won’t be. Observation needs to recognise the individual lecturer. There can be more flexibility and there can be more support. Revising quality structures provides a good opportunity for revisiting observations, too.