Secret Lecturer: Will Ofsted's focus on teaching quality free up colleges?


At last, it seems, Ofsted is thinking outside the box and starting to distance itself from politicians' obsession with performance and league tables. The recent message from Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, is a welcome start – she’s announced that the agency plans to drop student outcomes and exam results from school inspections as key markers of success and instead concentrate on quality and breadth of education, what students are being taught and how. 

Interesting, then, that just a few years ago Ofsted was arguing it didn’t matter what you did in class if you were not achieving the right outcomes and exam results. And even more interesting, back in the 1990s, that Ofsted was focusing very much on how effective a teacher was in class, the standard of resourcing and how it was affecting school and college attempts to improve their provision.


Colleges used to confusing messages

This uncertainty spills over into further education. New Labour and subsequent governments were set on getting 50% of young people into university, saying degrees fostered the type of skills the UK apparently needed. Yet now there is the additional, increasing emphasis on advanced and higher apprenticeships, posing the same old question – what are the priorities? 

Such confusing, constantly changing messages only inhibit schools and colleges from developing properly. The governments of the day invest huge resources into backing the latest trends. Politicians always have an eye on the next election and often say things they think people want to hear rather than what is actually best long-term. It highlights the fact that we, unlike many of our European neighbours, have not worked out what we want from education. Is it quality of teaching or results?


Horses for courses, not GCSE straitjackets

You only need to glimpse the huge effort my college makes every year to motivate its thousands of GCSE English and maths resit candidates, even though it’s been proven that once students miss the pass mark, they find it increasingly difficult to achieve it. My colleagues’ pleas to be allowed to teach the subject to fit students’ needs and not force students to fit the subject are still falling on deaf political ears. 

Go back a few years to the early noughties, one colleague told me, and during college inspections, Ofsted had become very prescriptive in how performance and other data were presented. At the time, in sheer frustration, he argued that Ofsted might in future do better to leave colleges free to develop their own ways of improving performance and focus on what they thought important and then judge that. That way, he argued, in vain, that Ofsted would discover colleges developing the best systems rather than having it imposed from outside and thus disseminate best practice across the country.

Now the hope is that the new Ofsted approach will reward colleges for, say, adopting other more practical ways of teaching maths and English than resorting to the academic rating required by GCSE – best approaches to teaching basic skills and beyond perhaps? 

What if colleges did not have to pay teachers?

One way forward would be for the government rather than colleges to pay teachers. In Germany, for instance, teachers are treated as civil servants – they don’t get paid out of school budgets but are paid separately by the state, which partly accounts for their higher pay levels and the fact they earn far more respect than their UK peers. Schools and colleges do not suffer the considerable burden of salaries and pensions; they can direct their budgets, energy and expertise towards resources, curriculum activities and buildings. 

One downside of this approach, of course, is that a college has less budgetary flexibility; but it does remove the political aspect for schools and colleges and their constant battle to answer the straight question about how much their staff are worth. You can just dream about the staff admin, time and resources you could save to invest elsewhere.

In some European countries, there is also much less argument about what is important to achieve educationally on a national level; it avoids the lack of clarity in our own FE sector, full of colleges made dizzy by the consequent merry-go-round of policy changes. 

Let’s just hope Ofsted is allowed to stick to its guns.

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