OFSTED and Further Education (FE): can the circle be squared?

Jayne Stigger recently wrote an article in the Guardian that rightly identified an issue with OFSTED and FE. Jayne’s suggestion that the OFSTED inspection model should be replaced with a peer to peer alternative certainly has resonance. In this article  I hope to continue the conversation that Jayne began because in my view FE has significant structural problems and OFSTED is, at least,  partially to blame. So the question is; can the circle be squared? Is OFSTED an appropriate watchdog for FE and the skills sector?

There has been some debate on Twitter, and no doubt elsewhere,  about the fact that different functions within  OFSTED serving schools on the one hand, and the Skills sector on the other, whilst seeming to agree about observations have sufficiently differentiated approaches,  as to cause some confusion.

This seems to be currently being addressed by Mike Cladingbowl director of schools at OFSTED. It does seem evident that OFSTED is increasingly aware of the issues that face the different sectors within the education system, or seem more prepared to talk about them.

However FE colleges have a number of challenges, which are outlined below:

  • The Size and Diversity of FE Colleges
  • The relationship between the developers of curriculum and FE Colleges
  • The lack of statistical rigour in the structural composition of the qualifications offered by FE Colleges
  • The difficulty of joined up data in FE

The Size and Diversity of FE Colleges

Many FE colleges are now sizeable institutions and include provision spanning the educational spectrum; traditional Further Education, secondary education, Sixth Form, Higher Education, Work Based Learning, and so on and so forth. The largest have tens of thousands of students. In fact Newcastle College Group (NCG) delivers learning to over 70,000 individuals, 20,000 organisations and has a turnover of over 150 million pounds. They make significant contributions to the local economy. In effect FE colleges are complex medium sized businesses with a diverse array of products targeting different markets, some mainstream and others niche. Whilst FE colleges are clearly significant social enterprises, questions remains as to whether they are delivering outstanding teaching and learning? The implied criticism seems to be that schools, that are smaller, more focused and pay higher salaries are better at what matters the most.

The truth of the matter is hard to discern and this is where OFSTED comes into the picture. The Head of OFSTED Michael Wilshaw described FE success rates as “palpable nonsense” , which is clearly a somewhat damning verdict on the sector. The question is  whether OFSTED is the cause of many of the problems and can it really inspect colleges that are large, diverse and whose key objectives includes adding value to the local economy? It’s quite clear that Michael Wilshaw, for one, thinks that OFSTED hasn’t made much of a fist of it so far. FE success rates didn’t become “palpable nonsense” overnight.

The relationship between the developers of curriculum and FE Colleges

The relationship between the developers of curriculum, on the one hand, and schools has been the subject of much scrutiny. Michael Gove, at one point seemed to suggest that he was going to create a single supplier for the GCSE qualification.

In secondary education certain exam boards have developed a reputation for being a soft option. Even so, schools have a National Curriculum, which is developed in the context of an an on-going national debate. The same cannot be said of  FE colleges who have an enormous number of specialist qualifications run by companies in a customer – supplier relationship. In the FE sector qualifications are developed for curriculum areas as diverse as; motor vehicles, hair dressing and plumbing.  The ability to benchmark qualifications, in order to create data sets so that  OFSTED can compare institutions, is much more difficult. One solution is to build into the qualifications increased benchmarking, for example, external exams and impose curriculum onto FE colleges, which will arguably diminish the offering and reduce the flexibility of FE colleges to meet the needs of the local economy, and other stakeholders.

The OFSTED inspection model can create an inbuilt conflict between the suppliers of qualifications and their customers , in this case FE colleges, particularly in circumstances where the ability to compare institutions “like with like” is problematic. There isn’t a great deal of interest in the rigour of assessment anywhere in the FE supply chain. When learners fail it affects baseline data, institutional reputations and of course profit margins. Michael Wilshaw maybe right about FE success rates but his organisation is, at least, partially responsible.

The lack of statistical rigour in the structural composition of the qualifications offered by FE Colleges

The difficulty of benchmarking data when dealing with a diverse and complex range of qualifications is a problem because Ofsted likes data. It has tools that provide measurable data, a lot of them . It has data view, data dashboard and no doubt a myriad of other statistical analysis tools.  It uses the data to compare institutions, some would say that OFSTED is overly dependent upon it. Data has become more important since OFSTED’s  observation protocol collapsed under a weight of evidence, primarily showing that observing individual teachers offers little, in terms of an objective view of practice in institutions.

In terms of assessment and qualification structure, FE has been caught between two different education models; that of Secondary education and Higher Education (HE). FE has a similar relationship with exam boards as schools where curriculum and content,  is concerned, at the same time it has the same autonomy in terms of assessment  as HE. In other words FE Colleges have many qualifications that are developed “in house”, albeit based on external curricula but also have assessment powers with little or no external examinations and under the last government, operating an ethos of self assessment, increasingly anaemic External Verification (EV) processes.

As previously described, often there is no real way of nationally benchmarking the quality of work being produced by students, and the grades awarded by FE colleges. Of course that does not stop OFSTED collating data but it says nothing about the quality of teaching and learning or the rigour of assessment. On the one hand OFSTED is describing the success rates in  FE as “palpable nonsense”, and on the other, it is using the same data to determine inspection grades.

The difficulty of joined up data in FE

Much has been made about how you ensure equality of provision in the different sectors of the education system. This can manifest itself in debates about the equity of selection in secondary education. The well known educational researcher John Hattie has suggested that the quality of provision in educational institutions should not be based upon the results of learners but the journey they are undertaking; where they have come from, and where they are going. The debate has reached the higher echelons of government David Cameron, himself, has made much of coasting schools in middle class areas.

FE Colleges on the other hand do not suffer the same scrutiny as schools.The resolution to the problem in schools is the use of longer term data to establish the learner journey. The argument being, that selection is not an issue, if you measure the journey from the point of entry into an educational institution to the point at which they leave. The journey of the learner is relative to their progress rather than the qualifications they finally achieve.

Secondary schools take students from Primary schools, where progress is nationally benchmarked using SATS data. Sixth form colleges offering “A” levels often recruit learners with eight nationally benchmarked GCSE qualifications. Specialist educational software offer tools to analyse prior achievement and forecast future progress, which is used to generate target grades. OFSTED and educational institutions measure longer term progress using these grades. That is not to say that the data is perfect or making sense of it is easy, far from it.

Even so, is it even possible to use longer term data in FE colleges? Is GCSE Mathematics a useful guide to a vocational course in Hairdressing. Is a vocational qualification assessed and awarded by an individual school with no national benchmarking likely to yield purposeful data for FE colleges in terms of the learner journey? It’s also  questionable whether FE should be concerning itself with longer term data. FE colleges are sufficiently differentiated from schools that data derived from schools has little relevance to the qualifications that are being undertaken. What matters in FE is whether the training has been rigorous, the learner has developed the appropriate skills and there is the possibility of employment when the course has been completed. Quality of provision is key to the future success of FE and skills. Make no mistake many FE colleges now have state of the art provision in vocational areas such as Motor Vehicles, Sports and other vocational areas.

The consequences of OFSTED’s oversight of the FE sector

The lack of nationally benchmarked qualifications, reliable long term data and the size and diversity of the FE sector means that the risk implicit to the OFSTED inspection model is a diminution of quality of provision in the FE and skills sector. In effect FE colleges are pressurised to play the OFSTED game, with little or no effective external scrutiny. In fact the perverse nature of OFSTED’s regime means that the more effective a college is at playing the OFSTED game, the less likely they are to face external scrutiny.

Another consequence is that it facilitates the governments reducing funding, whilst still claiming improved efficiency whereas in reality the only true consequence is a reduction in quality, it’s just that there is no meaningful way to measure it. This has a “knock on effect in terms of teacher salaries. In FE, teacher pay is negotiated locally. Pay in FE no longer matches that in school, and in a sector where the teacher is as important variable, it matters.

It may well not be a co-incidence that in the recently reported  annual education report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), noted the “quantum leap” made by the UK has made in terms of FE and HE access – for the first time, more people now gain a university or college qualification than leave school aged 16 or 18. However the OECD has also identified that the increased number of learners getting an FE and HE  qualification has not matched either by better skills, or by increased social mobility.

There is no doubt that OFSTED as an organisation  has improved immeasurably. There is now much greater engagement between OFSTED and the profession. It can arguably continue to work with Primary and Secondary educators where benchmarked national qualifications offer reliable (ish) data to underpin their judgements. In FE Colleges this data is problematic and the narrowing of the offering to shore up the data may not be appropriate.

So I agree with Jayne Stigger that OFSTED has a lot more work to do, if it is to contribute to the resolution of FE’s  structural issues, and it can only do that by focusing on the quality of provision. It seems unlikely that industry and other stakeholders will take seriously a sector of poorly paid “experts” working under the shadow of a schools inspectorate.

The economy needs a world class skills sector offering highly prized qualifications. FE colleges should be leveraging the relationships between sixth form and HE provision, which often co-exist “side by side” in the same institution with traditional vocational provision to improve the quality of the product it offers.  The problem is that FE colleges are dancing  to the tune of different watchdogs. No one, it seems, is looking holistically at FE and Skills to maximize the potential of the sector. In many ways OFSTED’s new collaborative approach offers a platform for making progress but the FE and the skills sector increasingly feels like, an after thought to an organisation whose main focus is schools.


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