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Inspection system needs to work in current education landscape

08 December 2016

When he launched this year’s Ofsted Annual Report, Sir Michael Wilshaw said ‘many FE colleges are facing a period of continuing turmoil’. In recent years colleges have coped with a maelstrom of Government changes, policy changes, funding cuts and the area review. With all this going on, it’s not surprising that colleges are having a tough time. But they are resilient, continuing to serve the needs of their students, employers and the wider local community and economy. In his Annual Report, Sir Michael also says that our education system is not yet world class, but is closer than it’s ever been. In further education (FE), the sector is 78% good or better, but where the report is critical of FE colleges we suspect that the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) isn’t asking the right questions. The report observes that the Government’s policy of making students who fail to get at least a C grade in GCSE English and maths to resit the exams, isn’t yet working. The current policy is causing problems – for example, is it clear to us all, including Ofsted inspectors, what outstanding English and maths resit outcomes should look like in the FE sector? What are the benchmarks for resits? The current framework and accountability measures are not sympathetic to the differences between schools and FE colleges, which do deliver A Levels, but where the majority of learning is on technical programmes, apprenticeships and other work-based courses. These might need a different approach to inspection because of more focus on practical, hands-on learning. No framework or measure in itself can ever be perfect, but could it be argued that the CIF is trying to do too much? The education system is very much geared towards the needs of an academic curriculum. We may have ended up with a system that tries to measure and inspect colleges against school-based standards. Technical education is distinctive, so does it need a new or adapted framework that celebrates its distinctive nature? There are many reasons to be optimistic. The Government’s Post-16 Skills Plan will develop the technical and professional education system, to make it easier to understand and more attractive to a larger number of people. But this might need a review of the current inspection framework and more attention on how technical and professional education and training is inspected and assessed. Colleges are working extremely hard to meet the needs of their students while also meeting the requirements of the Government and Ofsted. Perhaps it’s time for us to sit down and review both the policy for English and maths and how the CIF will work for the new skills plan routes. Whichever way they choose to go, they must try to find a system that works better for all in the current and future education landscape. David Corke is the Director of Education Policy at the Association of Colleges