From education to employment

Ofsted: A Force for Improvement?

Louise Doyle, the CEO at Mesma

As night follows day and as disruption follows Elon Musk, so too does the call for abolishing Ofsted follow the announcement of a new strategy. As was the case yesterday on social media.

For early clarity, should it mean you don’t want to read on, I’m afraid you’re not about to hear that call from me. I hope that I’m fair in my criticism of the actions taken at times by the inspectorate in England but equally, recognise the value of an oversight body when it delivers on its commitments.

I have enormous gratitude to the hundreds of FE and HE providers who entrust us with supporting their quality assurance activities, and as a result I often witness the helpful impact of inspection. As a long-serving governor in education, I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences of inspection over the years. For the benefit of doubt, this doesn’t always mean the grade was ‘Good’ or better.

Rather than getting caught in the online-world-we-live-in-trap of saying something quickly before anyone else does in response to the strategy announcement yesterday, I let my thoughts marinate (as my colleague would say) until I had something to say that may be of interest.

Here, in no particular order, are the five key points I took away from the strategy:

1. If the document were a quality improvement plan (which in many ways it is), my feedback would be ‘Great to see a focus on impact, however the associated measurement doesn’t always result from the action you intend to take.’ For example, when I read the ‘We will’ content on page 12, which covers MATs, SEND and models of inspection in FE, I would expect to read the ‘Resulting in’ content demonstrate this breadth, yet it focuses exclusively on MATs, EYFS and social care groups. This is disappointing and plays into the hands of those of us who are sometimes a little cynical about FE too often seeming an afterthought, bolted onto the end of a focus on schools. I’ll conclude on a positive note; it’s good to see measures like this included “Over 90% of providers will agree that their inspection will help them improve standards. “Nine to 12 months after an inspection, most providers will agree that they made changes to improve standards”. Bring it on.

2. I like seeing this sentence positioned boldly and early in the document; “Being ‘responsible’ means understanding the perverse incentives and unintended consequences our work can have, and minimising those as far as possible.” It is a realism under any regulator that this is a difficult line to walk, yet since Amanda came into role, I believe Ofsted have worked hard to tackle this head-on. The reduced focus on internal data in an attempt to tackle it draining staff time is an example of positive intent, albeit the impact may not yet be fully felt – likely due to a combination of professionals not entirely believing they won’t be tricked into sharing it, and some inspectors not yet comfortable in the skin of the EIF as opposed to the CIF.

3. I alluded to this earlier under point 1 but it’s worth spelling it out in more detail “While retaining the EIF, review whether we have the right model of inspection in further education and skills, given the complexity and diversity of provision and the size of some individual providers.” Leading up to the publication of the EIF, I was exasperated by the lack of focus on FE during the initial R&D. It gets little more than a side note in the resulting publications. However, the EIF is much better than its predecessor. It allows providers to demonstrate the impact of their work in a much broader way than they could previously, and the methodology of inspection is more constructive and much improved. Yet here we are, potentially looking at a change of model. Whilst Ofsted make clear this isn’t about changing the EIF, I do wonder if the R&D were more robust, might it have teased out concerns over the model deployed in FE earlier.

4. It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to see that what will be included in this review of the model is an oddity resulting from factors outside of Ofsted’s direct control., This is the potential convergence in the models of inspection of multi-academy trusts and college groups. It has always struck me as ludicrous that schools within a MAT are inspected individually, whilst colleges within a group are inspected as one entity. There is no logic to this. I would go as far as seeing note of frustration from Ofsted in this paragraph, (particularly in the limitations placed on them about MAT inspections). “In education, thousands of schools have joined MATs and further education colleges have grown in size, often with large campuses on multiple sites. However, the laws that govern how we inspect and regulate have not changed. Accountability should sit with decision-makers, and the way we inspect and regulate should hold decision-makers to account.” In short, the system is not keeping up with the infrastructure it set out to design.

5. Finally, I am delighted to see the ongoing emphasis placed on SEND “… the need to implement a new area SEND inspection framework that holds the right agencies to account for their role in the system and responds to the government’s SEND review; this will include an enhanced focus on local strategic oversight and commissioning of alternative provision.” SEND support is at breaking point. It takes more than a school or FE & Skills provider, who carries the weight of the entire system on its shoulders every day, to fix it. As Ofsted state, they are not an improvement agency, but I do know this; when they speak with authority based on evidence, the government listens.

Thank you for reading. There are other areas that are important in the strategy; the continued emphasis on tackling sexual abuse, focus on colleges (why only colleges?) meeting the skills needs of the economy, ITT inspections, and a painfully short section on sustainability which needs far more than a nod to complying with targets set by government. I very much look forward to hearing your views on these or other points that matter to you.

By Louise Doyle, Director, Mesma

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