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David Bell, the Chief Inspector for the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), addressed the Association of Colleges (AoC) Conference this morning to establish the rate of progress in FE Colleges.

The audience that he faced was hardly a naturally friendly one, following his unguarded comments the previous year when he said that FE Colleges are a "disgrace". This year, however, he began his speech on a more positive and conciliatory note, although recognising that he was unlikely to be the audience's "favourite person."

"Good or Better

Speaking of the changes that have come into being in the past few years, he stated that much of FE, specifically colleges in this instance, is either "good or outstanding". With that said, he sees further good in the future, as he says that the signs from the 424 FE Colleges and the more than 4,000 learning areas are that the trend for improvement is a continuing one.

He also cited that the management skills of the leaders of colleges have improved considerably in the past years, along with better advice being delivered to college learners both in personal matters and in professional, educational, training and career development. However, he believes that this improvement in advice provided is still not quite sufficient; as he says, he thinks there is "a lot more to be done" before the advice that young people get at the "crucial times for decisions" meets the needs of the young learners.

In this sixth form colleges were singled out for particular praise, although he does recognise the continuing success of all FE Colleges. The success rate is as he says increasing as he reeled of a list of statistics that proved his point. One such noted that the number of people entering and enrolling in FE Colleges has increased by one million between 1999 and 2003. And whilst he does not believe that inspections are solely responsible for the enhancement of the Colleges, he sees it as "incontrovertible" that the inspections did help.

A Crucial Time

In the midst of this improvement, he states that this is a crucial time for the sector, with the Foster Review marking a turning point in the course of skills development. This report he praised fulsomely, and he hopes that the so "“ called "bad colleges" will "disappear like a sea breeze." In this light, he pointed out that, from his standpoint, "satisfactory" in a review from Ofsted is not in his opinion good enough.

He cited the example of business, saying that "if you show him a business that feels it is providing a satisfactory product today" he can show you the same business as failing tomorrow. He sees colleges having a key role in skills development, and welcomed Foster placing them at the centre of the skills challenge. He points out as well that for the sector to succeed, strong inspections must continue as the threat of a re "“ inspection is (he believes) a great motivational tool for failing colleges.

ALI and Ofsted to Merge?

The final topic that has been on the lips of many concerned in the sector is the possible merger between the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) and Ofsted, which has been reported on previously by us here at FE News. He stated that this would be, in his opinion, a good move, as it would represent a sharing of expertise and an "economy of scale".

Many in the sector fear for the quality of the reviews following this merger, and he attempted to allay their concerns, saying that Ofsted intend to "build on the skills" of the ALI inspectors rather than subsume them in a larger Ofsted machine. He stressed the need for local and applicable inspections, and for the benefits seen in taking a "lighter touch" approach in successful areas.

The Minister of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, has yet to decide upon this merger. And should it come to pass, one wonders just how much of the current inspection practice will be lost, and what quality will be offered by a single inspection body without the experience in remit to cover such a broad arena.

Jethro Marsh

Ofsted have spoken"¦do you agree? Tell us in the FE Blog

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