The role and performance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Association of Colleges (AoC)

  • The Association of Colleges (AoC) represents and promotes the interests of Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges and their students. Colleges provide a rich mix of academic and vocational education. As independent, autonomous institutions established under the Further Education Act 1992, they have the freedom to innovate and respond flexibly to the needs of individuals, business and communities.
  • The following key facts illustrate Colleges' contribution to education and training in England:
    • Every year Colleges educate and train three million people.
    • 831,000 of these students are aged 16-18 which compares to 423,000 in schools.
    • 74,000 14-15 year olds are enrolled at a College.
    • One-third of A-level students study at a College.
    • 44% of those achieving a level 3 qualification by age 19 do so at a College.
    • 69% of those receiving an Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) study in a College.
    • Colleges are centres of excellence and quality. The average A-level or equivalent point score for Sixth Form Colleges is 800.1, compared with 761.6 for school sixth forms. 96% of Colleges inspected in 2008-09 were judged satisfactory or better by Ofsted for the quality of their provision.


To inform the AoC's response a membership survey was conducted. We have incorporated feedback from the survey into the text.


AoC would argue that the time is right to overhaul the inspection regime and system. Over the last eight years, the quality of education and training and achievement rates in Colleges has significantly improved. Colleges have matured and the sector now boasts less than 4% inadequacy. This is not reflected in other parts of the FE sector. Self-assessment is embedded and is at the heart of Colleges' annual review of their performance. A key component of the self-assessment process is the observation of teaching and learning. In fact, Ofsted rely on Colleges' own improvement plan, and teaching and learning improvement strategies, to form their judgements.

Over the past four years Ofsted has reduced its inspection intervention in proportion to the rise in achievement and standards. In fact it is now proposed that Colleges graded "Outstanding" are no longer inspected and that, based on a risk approach, Colleges graded "Satisfactory" and above will be subjected to a "light-touch" inspection regime. So the move to the sector taking ownership of the quality improvement agenda has already begun. Unfortunately the burden and bureaucracy of inspection has not decreased, and AoC would suggest a better use of public funds would be in supporting a sector-led peer review model.

AoC would therefore advocate a system which draws on the experience of Higher Education. A rigorous programme of peer review, with trained reviewers working within an agreed framework validated through a quality improvement/inspection agency, would not only reduce the cost per intervention but would also build capability within the sector. Colleges would work with Ofsted to design and agree a toolkit which would not only include the framework and criteria for peer review but also clearly set out a set of indicators against which performance would be measured. Colleges would like to work with Ofsted to design this toolkit around which peer validation would be consistent and rigorous. Ofsted could then sample the peer validations to ensure that the highest standards are maintained. The advantages of this are:

  • Reduction in the cost of inspection.
  • Development of the sector to ensure national standards are met.
  • Peers are recruited and trained to acceptable standards by Ofsted.
  • The enhancement of performance is encouraged through a community of professionals who take their experiences of peer validation back to their own institutions.
  • It allows Ofsted to target its interventions where performance is declining or is failing.
  • The model can be applied more directly to the context of Colleges rather than the "one size fits all" approach in current practice.
  • This system is similar to the peer review model used in Integrated Quality and Enhancement Review (IQER) used by the Quality Assurance Agency to assure standards of HE delivery in FE Colleges.
  • Ofsted could provide a service to Colleges who would pay for this, similar to external audit.

We would want to see the continuation of Ofsted's role in thematic enquiries. However these should be better informed and driven by the sector through the National Improvement Partnership Board (NIPB).[19]


What the purposes of inspection should be

1.  Ofsted's role is to ensure standards and to provide assurance to students, employers and tax-payers, that the institutions in which they are investing their future or resources can deliver to an appropriate standard. However commissioners also measure performance and have developed intervention strategies. The Skills Funding Agency measure FE College performance annually through:

  • Framework for Excellence.[20]
  • ILR[21] audits.
  • An annual assessment against minimum levels of performance (MLPs).
  • Monitoring Notices to Improve which result from failing to meet financial or qualification MLPs.

If Ofsted's role is to regulate standards then it is a duplication of systems already in place and it would be advisable in value for money terms to resolve this.

2.  AoC was pleased to see an increased focus on teaching and learning delivery in the
Cycle 3 inspections (from September 2009).


  • Ofsted's purpose is unclear - if it assures standards then other performance management can be removed or vice versa.
  • The qualitative judgements Ofsted make are of importance to the sector and to inform choice.

The impact of the inspection process on College improvement

4.  From our survey results Colleges feel that inspection does motivate improvement but they vary in their estimation of how much. Ofsted inspection continues to inform self-improvement strategies. Management teams in Colleges report that inspection is a major tool in their drive towards improvement. However many Colleges say they are already able to influence this direction of travel without Ofsted.

5.  Colleges value Self-Assessment, particularly as it is not a prescribed procedure and can serve their individual missions. It is currently a requirement of funding bodies and Ofsted expect a College's own judgement to match their own. A positive step to reduce the amount of time spent on self-assessment would be to agree with Ofsted a slimmer version on which to base peer validation.

6.  The Common Inspection Framework (Common Evaluation Framework) and the handbook for inspectors has been a useful engine for motivating improvements. Thematic reviews have given useful insights to focus development work. The "How Colleges Improve" (September 2008)[22] and the inquiry into progress on implementation of Workforce Reforms (Initial Teacher Training - an overview of Ofsted Inspections 2004-08)[23] were of particular interest.

7.  Ofsted reports are brief and serve the needs of a lay audience but do not give the forensic detail that a College might want to aid its improvement agenda.

8.  Ofsted has a light touch and now a no touch methodology for Colleges considered Good or Outstanding. In these cases it will have no role in improvement - that is for 63% of Colleges. Only 4% (seven Colleges) are graded Inadequate.


  • Ofsted's role in the future should be to support a peer validation process based on an agreed self assessment tool.
  • The element of professional qualitative judgements needs to be preserved.
  • In depth thematic reviews informed by the sector should be a continued role for Ofsted.

The performance of Ofsted in carrying out its work

10.  The current inspection methodology is far too bureaucratic and burdensome. It currently involves Colleges addressing:

  • 272 areas which contribute to judgements and grades for Overall Effectiveness, Capacity to Improve, Outcomes for Learners, Quality of Provision, Leadership and Management, Safeguarding and Equality and Diversity.
  • 27 areas must be addressed in the Effectiveness of Teaching Training and Assessment.
  • 22 for Safeguarding.
  • 24 for Promoting Equality and Diversity.
  • 24 areas are scrutinised under the heading of Value for Money.

This unacceptable level of regulation results in considerable resource being diverted from the front line. The burden of inspection is self evident and not commensurate with its impact on improvement.

11.  In the future students and employers may pay entirely for their provision with no support from the public purse. In that world there will be a purely customer oriented relationship which will depend on good quality for its survival. This would require a re-evaluation of the role of Ofsted in this market.

12.  AoC is disappointed that the Ofsted website is so difficult to access for Colleges seeking others who have just been inspected. We would encourage Ofsted to improve radically its search facilities.

13.  Making a complaint about an Ofsted inspection is a complicated process. A College inspection report can be published before the complaint is resolved. We encourage Ofsted to revise their procedures substantially and ensure they include the ability to complain not only about the conduct of inspection but the evidence that supports judgements. Reports should be delayed until resolution of the complaint.


  • Inspection is burdensome, bureaucratic and diverts resources from front line delivery.
  • The website and complaints procedure need attention.

The consistency and quality of inspection teams in the Ofsted inspection process.

15.  Inspection teams are professional and, with a 50% contribution from serving practitioners, have improved the currency of inspection.

16.  AoC has concerns about the consistency of inspections. Many of our members have experienced a number of inspections during their careers, including from the now defunct FEFC, ALI as well as Ofsted, and can make valid comparisons. The current system of contracting with inspection providers[24] has led to increased feedback from Colleges on the disparity between differing training and support for inspectors. We have already raised with Ofsted the problems perceived by our members of a conflict of interest between inspection contractors who are also consultants marketing their services to Colleges.

17.  There are separate bench marks for General Further Education and Tertiary Colleges, Sixth Form Colleges and Independent Specialist Colleges. Ofsted measure Qualification Success Rates against these. However it is increasingly difficult to categorise by types of College. Some Sixth Form Colleges may have more in common in terms of their curriculum and student cohort with a General Further Education College. Institutional benchmarks serve little purpose.

18.  The weight given to different types of provision in inspection has no relationship to the volumes of delivery in an institution. Ofsted focuses on 16-18 delivery and does not recognise the diversity of College provision.


  • Full-time inspectors need to update their experience of College practice.
  • The training of inspectors varies.
  • Benchmarks by institutional type should be removed.
  • There is insufficient focus or expertise on post-19 Employer Responsive provision.

The weight given to different factors in the inspection process.

20.  Qualification Success Rates (QSR)[25] have an overwhelming influence on inspection results and we believe they are a very important indicator of responsiveness to learners. But they have a direct influence over almost all of the 272 factors that culminate in a grade. The hypothesis that an inspection team arrive with will be based almost entirely on success rates.

21.  This encourages institutions to recruit the students whose success is predictable. Challenging qualifications are discarded in favour of more achievable alternatives.

22.  AoC would encourage a more reasonable approach to securing standards. We think there is a role for the FE sector in deciding with Ofsted what the threshold standards should be each year. Policing the complexity of individual qualifications is unnecessarily costly and not in the students' interest.

23.  The issue of the retention element of success rates needs to be re-examined. School achievements are based on the success in gaining the qualification, not on how many students registered at the beginning of the programme. Colleges acknowledge the importance of focusing on retention and it has led to further innovation in teaching, learning, target setting, attendance monitoring and tutorial. However a student leaving for employment, illness or change of address has a negative and unfair impact on College success rates, therefore this requires re-evaluating.

24.  We are also disappointed that measuring student success after the age of 16 in schools and Colleges is still not comparable. It leads to uninformed decisions being made by those unaware of the complexity of measuring success.

25.  College inspections since September 2009 have focused on Safeguarding and Equality and Diversity. Grades for these areas have a limiting effect on the Overall Effectiveness grade. AoC believes that Safeguarding has assumed an importance in inspection way beyond the problem that needed a solution. In many Colleges adults make up the huge majority of students. Procedures that might apply to younger students and school settings have little relevance to most College students. Colleges do not have the resources to invest in electronic security procedures, controlled entrances and secure closed campuses. Colleges have been involved in costly CRB checking and training of staff when their students have already felt safe and clear about how they need to protect themselves. We would encourage Government to remove this from the Ofsted remit.

26.  The judgements on Equality and Diversity have ensured a focus on the success of students on an individual basis. This has also led to innovative teaching delivery, a focus on tutorial and assessment for learning.

27.  However we do not think that either Safeguarding or Equality and Diversity should be a limiting grade at inspection. Equality and Diversity should be integrated into overall College practice.

28.  The inspection process does not give enough weight to value added measures.[26] Colleges lead the field in engaging young people and adults not engaged in education or training (NEET). They have developed programmes for ex-offenders, those with mental health problems and people with learning disabilities and difficulties (LLDD). A much greater emphasis on the distance travelled by all students would be welcome.

29.  Ofsted has given more weight to student satisfaction in the current cycle of inspections. Our members feel that national assessments of student satisfaction under Framework for Excellence should be used by inspectors.

30.  Inspection does not take into account the resources available for Colleges to deliver its programmes. In a recent report by Ofsted on Special Education Needs it criticised Colleges for the weekly Guided Learning Hours delivered to students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, and only acknowledged in the small print that this was all Colleges were resourced to do.


  • The overwhelming dependence on QSR has led to perverse behaviour. Outcomes for learners should address a wider range including employment.
  • Safeguarding and Equality and Diversity should be removed as a limiting grade in inspection.
  • Greater emphasis should be placed on value added and student satisfaction.

Whether inspection of all organisations, settings and services is best conducted by a single inspectorate.

32.  The inspection process should offer value for money and reduced bureaucracy. Inspectors need to understand the context in which they are making professional judgements. A single inspectorate, if structured and managed appropriately, should be able to achieve the standards above.


We do not advocate a return to different inspection services. The model we have explained at the beginning of this evidence would be a cost effective and robust system, and would provide the expertise for different contexts.

The role of Ofsted in providing an accountability mechanism for Colleges operating with greater autonomy.

34.  AoC believes the time is right to review the role of performance management in the College sector. We have explained our ideas in Section One for a peer validation model supported by Ofsted.

35.  We are moving to an era where Colleges will have much greater autonomy to manage their budgets in delivering their agreed business plans.

36.  The oversupply of performance indicators and kite marks, each with their costs in people and time, needs reform. Framework for Excellence, Minimum Levels of Performance, Matrix, Investors in People, the Training Quality Standard, the quality assurance requirements of Awarding Bodies and now Sector Skills Councils, National Skills Academies and of course Ofsted all have their different methods and requirements. Possession of one does not influence another.

37.  AoC is part of the National Improvement Partnership Board which is progressing the provision of publicly available information to aid student choice (mentioned above). Framework for Excellence will be part of this information. This project is supported by the current Government and the sector itself, and is a good example of a voluntary partnership to give stakeholders the information they need without compulsion. The motivation is the student/customer who has a choice to go elsewhere. Thus kite marks and performance indicators could be part of this landscape but paid for by the College where it deems it will improve its standards, and give its students and employers more information.


  • Ofsted should be part of a co-regulating system. AoC's model provides a blueprint for the future, borrows from international good practice, is used in higher education and would reduce costs whilst further increasing the quality of College provision.

October 2010

19   NIPB brings together all the parties interested in improvement in the FE Sector. It is hosted by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service. Back

20   Framework for Excellence is a set of performance indicators for Qualification Success Rates, learner and employer views, and learner destinations. All Colleges are part of this framework but schools are not. Back

21   The student records database for funding and performance measurement in the FE sector. Back

22 Back

23 Back

24   Ofsted contract with SERCO, Tribal and CfBT to deliver inspection services.  Back

25   QSR are measured by counting the number of students who start a qualification programme and those who achieve. For example if 10 people start in year one and only five take the qualification at the end of two years the QSR will be 50%. In schools using the same numbers their achievement would be 100%. School attainment is only measured on who gains the qualification not on who has dropped out. Back

26   Value added is a calculation based on where a student starts, the qualifications they enter a programme with, and where they finish. Positive value added scores are where a student achieves beyond what could be predicted. It is a good measure of College effectiveness.  Back

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Prepared 17 April 2011