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Time is ripe for a lighter touch

The publication of the chief inspector of schools' report and the recent call from David Sherlock, chief of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, to "improve the fit between inspection and adult learning" both offer a chance to consider the best way forward for inspections.

The Association of Colleges has always argued for a proportionate approach, a lighter touch where justified, and for greater account to be taken of a college's own self-assessment system. That used to be the case, and we therefore welcome Mr Sherlock's proposal to have it again.

We also welcome the greater analysis and depth in the Office for Standards in Education's chief David Bell's report, which recognises that what students bring with them in the way of knowledge and skills affects their achievement.

The AoC has long argued for the importance of value-added measures. Basing performance indicators on the distance travelled by individuals from their own starting point offers a far more reliable picture than one based on raw outcome scores.

We believe that post-16 performance tables currently do a disservice to students - by leaving out a huge proportion of what is studied and by looking at raw outputs at particular ages, rather than the stage reached by the learner.

So, plaudits for both of these approaches - but the devil will be in the detail. We would be concerned if any new approach aimed to separate learners as if they belonged in different boxes. Learners at any age have the right to expect a similar deal from those teaching and supporting them - whether in a school classroom, a college or during training with an employer.

Any new system should assess equitably across all organisations that offer learning. As the real choice and changeover period for many young people is increasingly likely to be 14 rather than 16, a uniform inspection process for this age group needs to be considered.

There is still a marked contrast between the depth and understanding shown in school reports and those conducted in the college sector. For instance, some references to schools meeting the needs of pupils actually refer to courses in the local college. We are not comparing like with like.

As regards Mr Sherlock's comments, we wonder how an inspection based on a "series of small-scale visits, over time, sampling different areas of work of a big organisation" will work in practice. We have already seen an era based on a sample approach. That gave way to a new system in which, in theory, all areas were inspected, thus generating a large number of inspections.

A shortage of inspectors sometimes meant that sections which colleges particularly wanted to be inspected were overlooked. The proposed regime might give a more accurate assessment but is likely to add cost and be time-consuming.

Inspections need preparation. And would a series of visits more widely spread be too demanding, and so leave less teaching time? But colleges might prefer this approach if they were able to show the extent of the service they provide.

Colleges are on the cusp of many areas of learning, encompassing work with employers, higher education, basic skills, A-levels and more. Any new system should be tested by how well it meets the needs of colleges. If it works for these learners, it will be the best it can be; if not, then once again we will be letting down those for whom we must get it right.

Colleges want an inspection process in which they are partners and which aims to improve students' learning opportunities. They want a dialogue with inspectors and to be engaged in a more differentiated process than exists now, with providers that have a good record and have a lighter touch in inspections.

A single inspectorate for post-14 education and training would be an important step, and it is time for debate about whether we should separate off other parts of the system. After all, colleges tell us that 14 to 16-year-olds learn very well beside adults.

Judith Norrington is director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges

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