On your bike, Ofsted: we don't need you here

FE commissioner says watchdog's intervention is not welcome

Darren Evans

The further education sector is "mature" enough not to need Ofsted any longer and can instead evaluate its own performance, according to the FE commissioner.

David Collins, who was recently appointed to intervene in failing colleges, told TES that he also had doubts that a common inspection framework for schools and colleges - as proposed by the watchdog - would work.

The commissioner's comments came after the launch of his initial annual report last week.

Colleges can be referred to the commissioner after an inadequate Ofsted inspection - four of the 11 interventions he has overseen so far were triggered this way. Dr Collins also investigates colleges that are failing financially.

When asked about the difference between his role and that of Ofsted, he said: "There's a very simple difference: inspectors report on what's wrong, but it's our job to find out why it's wrong and to give advice and support to put it right."

But he added: "I personally believe that the sector is mature enough not to require an Ofsted approach to inspection. I would prefer to see a peer review system developed where colleges learn from each other, along the lines of the Quality Assurance Agency in higher education."

The QAA conducts peer reviews of all UK degree-awarding bodies, including universities and FE colleges that offer HE programmes.

Ofsted currently has a separate framework for inspecting FE and skills providers, but it is consulting on the possible introduction of a common inspection framework across all sectors of education. It says this would provide "greater coherence and comparability".

At the Association of Colleges (AoC) conference in Birmingham last week, Ofsted revealed that it had received more than 2,000 consultation responses so far, with 82 per cent of respondents agreeing with the proposals.

Senior inspector Paul Joyce told delegates that Ofsted would be "actively seeking" senior college managers to become part of inspection teams. But Dr Collins questioned whether a new common inspection framework would work.

"It's difficult for Ofsted to cover the whole range [of education] and produce reports that are comparable," he said.

"If you look at inspection reports from the 1990s, they contained some useful comparative data. It is a shame that Ofsted reports now do not contain the same amount of useful information and data. If Ofsted is to be more useful, it would be helpful to share that data with the rest of the sector."

The University and College Union has also been highly critical of Ofsted's approach to FE. The union's head of further education, Andrew Harden, said: "It is really encouraging that the FE commissioner is prepared to look at other and better ways of overseeing the sector. We would agree that the Ofsted approach does not work best for colleges and would be very keen to explore alternatives with David Collins and anyone else interested in improving the current set-up."

Lynne Sedgmore, director of the 157 Group of colleges, said that many college principals already had well-established peer support and review networks, which were "immensely useful".

She added: "We are more than capable of developing this into a truly self-sustaining and self-improving system, within which any external assessments, such as those provided by Ofsted, can be considered as just one source of evidence."

An Ofsted spokesperson said: "Together, both Ofsted and the commissioner play a vital role in helping to raise standards and outcomes for learners in the FE sector.

"We are always interested to hear the views of those working in the sector. This is why we are currently consulting on the future of education inspection, including for FE providers. The consultation is available on the Ofsted website."

Richard Atkins, president of the AoC, said: "Colleges are now mature institutions, 20 years after incorporation. To reflect this maturity and today's limited resources, any national inspection system should perhaps focus only on those colleges requiring urgent improvement, allowing most colleges to adopt a peer review system in which best practice is shared and incremental improvement is encouraged.

"Other countries do not inspect upper secondary, technical and professional institutions in the way that Ofsted does."

`An exceptionally good idea'

Jayne Stigger, pictured, a lecturer and manager in an FE college in the South East of England, thinks the FE commissioner's proposal is an "exceptionally good idea".

"The FE sector is certainly mature enough to run a peer review system, which would be a more supportive and developmental tool than inspection," she says. "I believe FE staff are more than capable of producing such a system."

Ms Stigger, an FE blogger and occasional TES columnist, suggests that small groups of colleges could form peer review networks on a regional basis across England.

"It should still involve some form of monitoring and the FE commissioner should be involved in some way; it should not be a complete and utter free-for-all because that would leave the sector open to accusations," she says.

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Darren Evans

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