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2023 Review: Lessons for Providers from Ofsted Inspections

Kerry Boffey

Consistency across programmes, personal development, careers guidance and governance feature in Kerry Boffey’s review of Ofsted inspections in 2023.

Here at the Fellowship of Inspection Nominees (FIN), we are looking forward to making a contribution to the new Ofsted chief inspector’s “big listen” when he starts in the new year. During the autumn, we invited our members to complete an anonymous survey from their own inspection experience and the feedback will be shared with Ofsted after a full analysis.

FIN has already flagged up concerns to Ofsted about the lack of consistency within inspection teams and the inspectorate has been in the spotlight because of successful appeals against judgements and the tragic case of Ruth Perry. We will maintain a constructive discourse with Ofsted and the DfE in support of providers. But when we look back on 2023, it is just as important that providers are up to date with reasonable expectations for delivering high-quality programmes.

Consistency across programmes

The word ‘consistency’ applies to providers as well. While it’s good to have excellent individual curriculum programmes, if the quality is inconsistent across the range, the quality of education and overall effectiveness grades will likely reflect this.

FIN has analysed how inspectors graded the different aspects over the past six months. There is a very close correlation between the overall effectiveness grade and the quality of education grade which points to a good provider focus on the latter.

Six FIN members achieved overall outstanding grades in 2023. A common theme was that the inspectors found employer, industry or community needs being met and a clarity about who benefits from the learning. Each member also knew what their ‘wow factor’ was and was able to articulate it to Ofsted.

Looking for impact

For providers where areas for improvement were identified, two areas were the most frequent: personal development and careers guidance. Originally Ofsted implied that personal development focused on the provider’s input and not impact as the latter was often difficult to evidence; for example,  healthy living might not show an impact immediately but instead overtime. However, we are now seeing a change in behaviour and inspectors are asking about impact. We have seen inspectors critique providers when learners have not been able to fully recall ‘Prevent’, i.e. it has not been enough to show input; inspectors have judged impact. 

The evidence of good support for learners should include leaders and managers encouraging learner engagement with planned enrichment activities. Compared with other learners, enrichment activities for apprentices may be more focused on developing soft skills, such as communication, teamwork, and problem-solving. They may also include opportunities to network with professionals in their field and gain exposure to new industry trends. While this is a shared responsibility with the employer, staff should ensure that learners take up opportunities that will help them to broaden their interests.

An honest SAR

A starting point for consistency and indeed the preparation for an inspection is the self-assessment review (SAR) which leaders need to analyse. This quality assurance process should not be copied from others but is identified in a deep-rooted set of organisational principles that drive quality. Leaders should question how honest it is and whether it would withstand rigorous testing by inspectors. Does the report fully reflect what inspectors will see and hear? For example, if a provider thinks learner engagement or support is a strength for inclusion in the SAR, it should consider what its learners would say. The provider has to be confident that the learners feel motivated and well-supported, and that it can show how it knows this.

Across the sector, most providers have been through inspection within the past five years and so the experience is fresh in the mind. For this group, one issue faced by nominees can be complacency following an inspection. It can be challenging for the nominee to continue to focus leaders on quality, compliance and evidencing the impact of provision. Instead when a good result is achieved, the focus often turns to revenue and growth. This becomes a time for vulnerability as weaker practice takes hold and corners are sometimes cut.

Early preparation essential

2023 saw a slow rise across the FE sector in the proportion of inspections resulting in grade 3 or 4 outcomes. For FIN members, it is good to report that the numbers are very different with 76% achieving good or better. The longer members work with the FIN team, the better is the inspection outcome. FIN membership can also be at its most valuable following inspection, helping the nominee to remain quality-focused and continue to evidence impact. 

In addition to membership, we also offer bespoke external governance. The past twelve months have seen an increased demand for this service. As a result we have been able to significantly impact on the quality of provision, help drive improvements such as retention and out-of-funding learners with some outstanding achievements at inspection.

For those possibly facing an inspection in 2024, leaders should be able to validate the contents of the SAR to their board for robust scrutiny. FIN can also guide providers on how the SAR should be supported by a quality improvement plan (QIP). We will also help find evidence that following a previous inspection the management has maintained the need to improve standards. Coaches will be able to impress inspectors on how a progress review has made a positive impact while providers can be confident that learners will tell inspectors the most enjoyable and useful part of their training.

With the right commitment to quality, providers preparing for an inspection should not be fearful but a long preparation time, ideally a minimum of 12 months, can make all the difference.   

By Kerry Boffey, Fellowship of Inspection Nominees

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