This morning I visited Ofsted HQ in Holborn with colleagues and friends from the FE social media group on Twitter. This was the second such visit.
The first took place eight months ago as part of what I had envisaged who would be an invigorating long weekend in London: starting with a pre-election policy seminar; a table with fellow #UKFEchat Guide Book writers at the annual TES FE awards; and then that first meeting with Lorna Fitzjohn at Ofsted. Train tickets and hotel rooms were booked, bags were packed: and then life intervened.
Or rather, death did. At the last minute, I had to cancel the journey. Instead, I sat with three of my children around the hospital bed of my father, watching his last, peaceful breaths, as his life drew to a close. With apologies to the late Bill Shankly, Ofsted visits like Ofsted inspections are not life and death, and however much they may feel like it at the time, they don’t even come close in importance.
You’d be surprised, shocked even, what a revelation that was to me.
So this visit to meet with Ofsted’s FE lead Paul Joyce was in some ways a follow-up to the previous one, but in many ways it was also like a new start: some new personnel on each side; a new government setting the agenda for the sector; and a new inspection framework to work to. And, probably, there was a more measured, thoughtful approach from me.
In recent years I feel like I’ve seen the best and the least best of Ofsted; and probably they of me. I’ve had a senior role in three college inspections. The first ended up in me deputising for our Principal at the annual Outstanding Providers’ dinner in London. I like to think that was out of recognition of my part in the inspection, but I may just have looked in need of a good feed.
The second resulted in me running out of tissue boxes as I tried to stem the tears of anger and frustration of both the inspection team and my colleagues: the grade was satisfactory, the experience definitely required improvement. The third, and most recent, was a good inspection in every sense of the word. It was conducted with consummate professionalism on both sides and resulted in an agreed and improved verdict, which actually made me more proud than achieving the earlier Grade 1.
Today’s meeting was a wide-ranging discussion that included the importance and nature of progress; the use of targets; deployment of specialist inspectors; English and maths (of course, and how); the impact of funding cuts on inspection grades; outstanding culture; high needs; and an embarrassing confession. I’m sure other colleagues will blog in the details for you.
The confession was mine. Whisper it quietly, but I actually like this new inspection framework. I like the way that the first stated criterion for an outstanding college in this framework is one where “leaders, managers and governors, have created a culture that enables learners and staff to excel”. Learners and staff, mind you. To excel. The framework’s Leadership and Management criteria then tease out what this outstanding culture might look like.
I’m intrigued by the juxtaposition of an almost macho language of drivers that are unwaveringly high, uncompromising, and unflinching alongside the democratic language of leading teachers so that they reflect and debate, are deeply involved in their own development, and are motivated and trusted to take risks and innovate.
In ordinary times, the balance of these juxtapositions would be difficult to achieve. These are not ordinary times.
We know that a perfect storm has been brewed for the FE sector. The reality of severe and repeated budget cuts has led to significant job losses across the sector, and a prediction that by the end of this year well over half the colleges in England will be in financial crisis. The political and structural challenges of Area Reviews, and laudable moves to localise accountability and planning arrangements, indicate a period of significant upheaval for everyone involved in the sector.
I think I understand Ofsted’s role in all this, to report and to inform, but not to be involved in structural decision-making, nor to “make allowances” where it finds that the environment we have created contributes to a poor student experience or poor progress, outcomes, or progression. I also think that is right.
The time we had together today flew by, and as I indicated above, we covered a lot of ground. As you would expect, the discussion was conducted in an atmosphere that was respectful and interested, on both sides. Conversations like this can only help foster a better understanding of the role inspection can play, at its best, in our sector.
We don’t get to choose what times we live in, nor the extent to which those times will be ‘interesting’. These are our times, for better or worse. Those of us who have any level of stewardship role in this sector carry a responsibility to find and implement solutions that will ensure that we can continue to perform our key purpose, the thing that makes us get up and at it every morning: to transform individual lives and to support the economic success of businesses, communities and our country. Only a small task…
We can also do our damnedest to create and maintain that outstanding culture, to remain obsessed with excellence, and driven by it; but also to create a culture in which we can trust the professionals to be professional and to develop that professionalism, both of them.
And we can keep talking.