We are, in theory at least, moving towards the “Big Society”, with greater freedoms – and correspondingly greater responsibilities – a move that the Learning and Skills sector will clearly welcome. What is less clear, however, is how these freedoms and responsibilities will translate into practice and what benefits there might be for an individual institution.
One area where there must surely be opportunity for change is in the inspection regime for colleges. As a college Principal, I must admit that I did find the four yearly visits by a variety of full-time and part time inspectors of some use but I also remember the time, effort and resources that were directed towards proving that we were as good as we said we were. What’s more, like many institutions, in the year that the inspection took place student achievements remained static or decreased – blamed by many on the months of efforts required to be ship shape and Bristol fashion for the one or two weeks that the inspection team were with us.
Since incorporation in 1993 the college sector has matured and developed beyond all recognition. Today’s colleges are unrecognisable from the local authority institutions from which they grew. Today the typical college self assesses its performance each year with an increasing degree of accuracy, is actively involved in peer review and development (more than 150 groups meet regularly up and down the country) and engages through LSIS in a variety of national improvement programmes. With this level of maturity and a need to make savings and reduce bureaucracy, the question must surely be asked “Do we really need OFSTED?”
The University sector, of course, has managed without such an inspection regime since time immemorial and enjoys an international reputation that is second to none. In essence it combines the principles of academic freedom with elements of peer review but in many ways its systems for quality improvement are far less developed than those found in colleges. Surely it’s time for the “middle child” of our education system to enjoy the same privileges? Not only would there be savings in OFSTED (or a freeing up of resources which could be concentrated elsewhere) but there would be a collective sigh of relief from a part of the learning and skills sector that see the present arrangements as a bureaucratic imposition rather than a contributor to better provision.
What’s more the sector now has its own national improvement body in the form of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service that is representative, sector led and dedicated to accelerating the drive for excellence through using the best of what exists. We have the philosophy nationally for the devolution of greater freedoms and responsibilities. We have the mechanism to ensure that these freedoms and responsibilities are supported. Let’s follow it up with some action and, for colleges at least, recognise OFSTED as an organisation that was right for its time but one that can now be consigned to the dustbin of history.
David Collins is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS)
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