Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Association of Colleges (AoC) (OFS 10)


    —  The emphasis in the inspection process on the experience of the learner continues to be welcomed by colleges.

    —  We welcome the recognition from inspection findings that in excess of 90% of the teaching and learning inspected in colleges is satisfactory or better.

    —  We are pleased to note that several of the concerns we expressed in our response to the select committee in November 2001 have been addressed.

    —  Many colleges report a generally high level of satisfaction with the implementation of the Common Inspection Framework and the conduct of the inspectorate, especially where the inspection is led by an experienced team of inspectors.

    —  Of major concern are the relatively low inspection grades achieved by the majority of colleges with a high disadvantage factor.

    —  It is vital that further work is done on developing a range of ways of measuring the value added to a learner by the college and recognising a wider range of successful outcomes.

    —  The criteria for awarding unsatisfactory grades for leadership and management need clarification.

    —  There continues to be evidence of overlap with the provider review process and confusion over the use made of inspection findings in this process.

    —  It remains a matter of concern that the nominee is excluded from the grading meetings that take place on a Thursday and Friday of inspection week.

    —  There are shortages of inspectors in certain curriculum areas, with the result that these areas are not inspected in some colleges.

    —  The inspection of school sixth forms continues to be conducted using different criteria and by different groups of inspectors, making true comparisons very difficult.

    —  There needs to be increased clarity that the purpose of inspection is to drive up quality.

    —  The use of attainment as a criterion for grading lessons continues to be a problem for colleges.

    —  We request reassurance that there will be a lighter touch inspection for colleges where there are no major causes for concern.


  1.  The Association of Colleges is the representative body for further education colleges in England and Wales established by the colleges themselves to provide a voice for further education at a national level. Some 98% of the 420 colleges in England and Wales are members.

  2.  AoC has been analysing with much interest the outcomes of the inspections that have taken place since April 2001. It has held meetings and conducted interviews with many of these colleges and it has mounted several conferences to brief the sector on the new regime. In addition it has prepared information packs explaining the ethos and details of the processes of the Common Inspection Framework and these have been greatly welcomed by colleges. Inspection is seen by further education colleges as an issue of great importance in driving up quality across the sector.

  3.  AoC is pleased to be given the opportunity to comment on the progress of the new regime and the work of the inspectorate in its implementation.


  4.  The Common Inspection Framework emphasises the experience of the individual learner in assessing the quality of all provision. This continues to be welcomed by colleges and has been helpful in supporting the sector in driving up standards.

  5.  The finding that despite a change in emphasis of the inspection process, 90% of teaching is satisfactory or better and that 65% is good or better, is a welcome confirmation of the high quality of much teaching and learning in the sector. In addition, we are pleased to note that recent LSC data confirm substantial increases in both retention and achievement.

  6.  We are pleased to see that since the last Select Committee meeting on the work of OFSTED, there have been changes to several aspects that were highlighted by the AoC in its last response. The large size of inspection teams was identified as causing problems both for colleges in terms of servicing their requirements and to the reporting inspector due to the difficulty of co-ordinating the findings. The size of the teams has generally now been reduced and the inspection period extended for large colleges. The period of notice given has been extended. There has been an increase in the reporting on adult work, previously given unrepresentative coverage. Inspector CVs are now generally available to colleges. There is now both an appeals system against grading decisions and a complaints system for procedural issues. We are pleased to note these developments and the fact that practice has moved on in response to points made over the past 18 months.

  7.  Feedback received by the AoC from many colleges reveals a generally high level of satisfaction with the implementation of the Common Inspection Framework, its usefulness as a tool to improve quality and the validity of the findings. Inspections have worked particularly well where the team has consisted largely of experienced inspectors with a good understanding of the diverse nature of FE provision and students. In the most satisfactory inspections, the team has been prepared to listen to and acknowledge the college its when it has wished to clarify issues or bring additional evidence to bear. Inspectors have almost unfailingly been professional and courteous in their dealings with colleges. The inspection handbook has been very useful in helping colleges prepare for inspection

  8.  Recent inspection reports pay greater tribute to the large contribution made by many colleges to widening participation and combatting social exclusion. However, colleges with a large proportion of disadavantaged students and ones whose history of prior achievement when they arrive at the college is poor, almost always receive poorer grades at inspection. We believe there is inadequate recognition of the quality of the work of colleges with students who find it more difficult to remain at college and achieve a qualification. There is an over-reliance on achievement of a qualification as an indicator of the success and quality of a college. Retention and achievement of a qualification are sometimes dependent on factors outside a college's control. Many adults, for example, are not interested in a qualification and may leave when they have acquired the knowledge or skill that they need. Many leave because they have obtained employment. Some leave because their employer withdraws sponsorship and others experience financial or personal pressures which make it impossible for them to continue at college. Colleges providing for these categories of students need to have their work acknowledged and praised by inspectors if they are not to be feel pressurised into discontinuing this type of work and restricting their recruitment to those students who are most likely to succeed.

  9.  At present value-added measures only exist to measure the distance travelled by learners on a narrow range of courses. Developing a wider range of value-added measures will be of particular importance in ensuring, amongst others, the success of 14-16 initiatives where colleges will be required to work with many disaffected young people who are at risk of dropping out of education or training. Achievement of a qualification may not always be an appropriate outcome. For some learners at risk of dropping out, for example, merely attending regularly and acquiring employability and other social skills will be an achievement in itself and this should be recognised by the inspection process.

  10.  There are indications that the criteria for the grade awarded for leadership and management as described in the inspectors' handbook are being inconsistently applied, at times appearing to be related to the curriculum grades and at other times not. This may relate to the depth of experience of the inspectorate team and the reporting inspector in particular. Because of the profound consequences of an unsatisfactory grade for leadership and management, and its relationship to overall judgements of inadequacy, it is clearly vital that criteria are transparent and consistently applied.

  11.  There is confusion still over the respective remits of the local LSCs and the inspectorates in the areas of performance review and the approval of post-inspection action plans.

  12.  In our view, it is most important in terms of ensuring the accuracy of inspection findings that the college nominee is present to represent the college's interests at the final grading meetings. This used to be the case under the FEFC. Although inspectors do their best to ensure that no unexpected findings emerge at a late stage in the week, because of the scope of the inspection and the size of the team, the nominee needs to be present to challenge any inaccuracies with additional evidence, especially at the crucial stages of final inspection judgements.

  13.  Where the Reporting Inspector is unable to recruit an inspector with expertise in a particular subject, that curriculum area will not be inspected. This occurs most frequently in vocational and specialist areas such as Hairdressing and Sport. This disadvantages general further education colleges which in many cases will have excellent provision in these areas. It is important that every effort is made to recruit sufficient appropriately experienced inspectors for all curriculum areas.

  14.  We are concerned that colleges are still subject to a different inspection process and a far more rigorous and exhaustive inspection than school sixth forms. This is reflected in the fact that the inspection report of a school sixth form is only a few paragraphs long.

  15.  There is concern that in some colleges a poor inspection has resulted in major changes in the senior management. It is important that the findings of an inspection are used as the basis for planning improvements and not seen necessarily as a tool for restructuring.

  16.  The application of the criterion "attainment" is still causing confusion in its use as applied to many courses found in colleges. This requires inspectors to make judgements on the standard of work of the group as a whole against a national norm for students working at that particular level at that stage of the year. This is a model that makes sense in schools where the student group is relatively homogeneous but only in certain courses in colleges. First, the members of a group, for example, of basic skills students, may be at widely different stages and working to their own individual learning plans. Secondly, this system penalises colleges that admit students with more modest prior achievements. Because attainment grades are no longer published, colleges can no longer even see the effect these grades are having on final lesson gradings. We believe that this criterion should be discontinued in colleges.

  17.  Although colleges have found the OFSTED/ALI inspections generally to be a driver for improvements in quality, they have also found them to be costly and time-consuming. Beyond a certain point the process becomes counter-productive as it diverts colleges from the business of delivering a high quality service to their students. A lighter touch inspection is therefore needed for colleges with no major causes for concern.

  18.  The Association welcomes the opportunity to build on the dialogue that has been built up with the two inspectorates. It has been involved to date in a great deal of collaborative work and is hopeful that this will continue. It has had meetings with the two Chief Inspectors, mounted seven conferences to update the sector on the requirements of the new framework and the findings of inspections. It has held nominee briefing events and basic skills training events in collaboration with OFSTED and sees all of these as valuable ways of progressing issues of common concern.

September 2002

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