I doubt there is anyone in Education who isn’t finding the pressure to change that bit daunting. Is it a possible strategy in fact for us to be so embroiled in meeting Government agendas that we forget to think and question the validity of change? You have to give it to Michael Gove - he eats up change and his concepts are having an impact. In fact there is no phase of education or learning that doesn’t escape the ‘Gove treatment’.
When I said 'impact' I did not quantify that impact because apart from levels of blood pressure etc I doubt we can measure it yet apart from ethos. The ethos I feel is clear; we need to change and we need to change fast, but however we change, the focus on the learner must not be lost. You’ve got a way to go yet, Michael, in terms of education with those with learning difficulties and disabilities – the agenda must be about preparing and supporting these learners. Yet I still see evidence of old fashioned approaches which seem to satisfy the ego of the trainer rather than putting the learner first. That is not to say there is no exemplary practice – there are some dynamic and exciting models out there that need to be cascaded.
The interesting fallacy here is that with the Gove agenda has come recognition that there is a need for a multifaceted solution to learning, hence academies, free schools, studio schools, University Technical Colleges, Higher Education funding for Further Education (FE) Colleges and so it goes on. I presume they are there (and I agree if my logic is right) because the government have tried to create models for different types of learner. Why then are we considering on Ofsted agenda which at first sight looks to be consulting on a similar system for FE as for schools? I do note however that HE seems exempt from the process. There really is a need for Colleges to respond to the current consultation from Ofsted because we do need to make it clear that schools and FE Colleges are very different institutions and demand different approaches from a quality assurance perspective.
What do I mean by this? Well, I want FE to be examined from the perspective of outstanding teaching and learning on one level but I also want it to be acknowledged how we transform lives. Many FE lecturers will know how difficult it is to get some learners who have been out of learning across the doorstep in the first place and how their progress is often incremental but eventually highly successful. On this basis let's have a system that is fair but also recognises what FE has to do to make its impact. At the same time I fully agree that we need to change the inspection approach even further and Colleges do need to measure up to a plan of rapid change if quality is only at a satisfactory level or less. My view of the current system is that Colleges are unsatisfactory, satisfactory, good or outstanding and that the new process really says unsatisfactory, not up to scratch, good and outstanding. Why can’t satisfactory remain but with an action plan to move to good/outstanding? Then if that does not happen it is time for serious intervention!
Actually this must be one of my more ‘generous’ days because I am not opposing change but just asking for it to be contextualised correctly. The new Chief of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw , is out to create change and we would be pretty dismayed if he didn’t want to raise standards further – equally the consultation may give us the opportunity to show how we support the changes within a full understanding of how FE works. We live in an environment that does not tolerate an ostrich mentality but fair discussion and debate is necessary. In the time I have carried out inspections for FE Colleges, I was dismayed at times by some of the people I met who were interested in working their hours and going home with no real dedication to their students or College. These however were the minority and in the main I met hundreds of dedicated professionals who really made a difference to the lives of so many. So let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. To conclude, we are totally embroiled in change and we are making headway. It’s difficult to keep our eye on the ball at times but we have partnerships in FE and successes that are the envy of many.
Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, Weston-super-Mare