The publication of the Ofsted Annual Report is always an important event in the educational calendar, and it usually makes the headlines for a number of reasons. This years’ report is Sir Michael Wilshaw’s last as HM Chief Inspector of Schools and has drawn media attention for comments about a north-south divide in education, particularly schools, and its possible contribution to the outcome of the EU referendum.
I don’t think there is anything to be gained by getting involved in such broad issues that are so subject to personal views. I would rather concentrate on the specifics that come out of the report, both positive and negative, and paint a true picture that sets us on a firm footing for future development.
English and Maths
The report itself rightly calls into question the long-held view in Government that FE Colleges should be mandated to focus so much effort and funding on GCSE re-sits in English and maths for the large volume of students who fail to achieve a grade C after five years in secondary school. We have been saying for some time that this blanket policy is in the interests of neither learner nor institution: there are so many more flexible and imaginative ways of equipping young people with these skills for life and employment when they leave school and become our responsibility. The Ofsted report says: ‘Inspection evidence shows that, for some students, having to retake their GCSE can be demotivating………….an alternative level two qualification may be more appropriate.’ We have been saying that for a long time and I hope that Government will listen to this mounting chorus of opinion.
What was less welcome, though sadly not unexpected, was Sir Michael’s subsequent public comment within hours of the report being published which contradicted it and switched the blame from Government to the FE Sector. This is not the first time that Sir Michael has made headline-grabbing comments that are completely at variance with the facts printed in his own reports, and it’s disappointing to a sector with such a keen focus on supporting strong outcomes for learners.
FE Colleges' performance
As in Ofsted inspections themselves, data dominates and guides the report’s qualitative assessment of the entire FE sector’s current performance, and the biggest headline statistic for FE is the dip from 77% last year to 71% this year in the proportion of FE Colleges assessed as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ during the last 12 months.
We shouldn’t be too surprised at this when we consider that Ofsted, rightly in my view, targets its inspection resources at colleges with lower achievement rates and inspects Grade 3 and 4 colleges again within 12-15 months – which is not much time to achieve significant improvement in what are sometimes very large and complex institutions. What is not reasonable, however, is to use the data that these inspections gather to extrapolate into a misleading general health report on the sector as a whole.
It is also a little disingenuous to compare the inspection performance of FE Colleges with that of the small independent specialist colleges and sixth form colleges, both of which concentrate on a single type of provision. This once again fails to pay due regard to the extraordinary breadth of provision and open access nature of FE colleges.
Returning to this year’s report, the 6% drop does not recognise the efforts FE colleges have made in the year just gone and in recent years to re-shape their curriculum to better match the skills shortages identified in the economies at local and regional levels. Our curriculum and that of the sector as a whole is now much more closely designed to match the detailed labour market information that is increasingly being made available in areas like Greater Manchester. In fact, one of the headline strengths in The Manchester College’s last inspection report was: ‘Highly detailed and thorough strategic planning has taken excellent account of local and regional priorities to provide courses that respond to the needs of the communities served by the college’.
No other sector of education is as good as ours at doing this, and we really deserve recognition for that. The good news is that, increasingly, the need to boost national productivity seems to be guiding Government policy on skills, and I see this as a big opportunity for getting across the huge role we can play.
Careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG)
When it comes to careers information, advice and guidance, a reader of the report could be forgiven for thinking that it is more or less uniformly under-performing by all institutions and for all ages. This is simply not the case, and Ofsted inspections provide much evidence to back this up.
The facts are that Colleges like ours have great strengths – acknowledged time and again by Ofsted inspection reports – in the breadth of our advice and guidance services and in the way we prepare young people for the world of work.
Work experience on study programmes
Finally, I’d like to look beyond our own institutions and make a point about employers and our relationships with them. I think that the report missed an opportunity to give deserved recognition of the challenges created by mandating work experience for 16-19 study programmes - not just challenges relating to volume but also of the challenge of ensuring they are of high quality and give students real insights into the career that interests them at the level of their intended qualification. This challenge is one which our staff and partner employers are rising to together, but it is a complex and time consuming endeavour. A fact that we must all recognise and understand if the outcomes are to be meaningful.
Looking to the future
Soon we’ll have a new Chief Inspector– Amanda Spielman, currently chair of Ofqual. I hope this is a signal for a change in approach. I would be the first to assert that an inspection body that is less than rigorous and frank is no use to anyone, least of all the institutions inspected. However, it must give recognition where it is due, cast it’s net widely to gather information and then base conclusions and comments on all the facts.