Wilshaw engineers the conditions for failure

Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw misses the point entirely in his recent attacks on the adequacy and sufficiency of FE. The prime goal is not that all learners should succeed beyond expectation, though of course they should, it’s that all stakeholders must work tirelessly to create the conditions for success.

In 2014’s autumn term, Study Programme requirements hit colleges hard, although that was not the intention. A telling line from Department for Education’s original guidance on Study Programmes shows their clear intention to create the conditions for success:

‘The funding changes will also mean that college funding will no longer be linked to their success rates. Students can be entered for more challenging qualifications without fear that failure will affect success and in turn funding.’

What changed, of course, was the requirement for the 30% of young people who fail English and maths GCSEs to resit in college. Failure after 1200 hours of study over many years in school makes some dislike, even hate, these vital subjects. FE has then just 60 hours to turn these ‘failures’ around. It’s arguably the toughest game in town.

November resits are no more, but consider one of the last reports by AQA, which conducts more English GCSE exams than any other:

‘Of the candidates who retook an exam, 70% received the same grade as before, with 30% receiving a higher grade (C or above). This is in line with the proportion of improvement (resit success) that AQA see every year’.

In colleges, resit success is about the same. Unfortunately, Sir Michael appears wilful in his misuse of this figure.

He compares his memory of 80% of pupils succeeding at their first attempt in his former school, Mossbourne Academy – a figure clearly including all abilities, up to the most able – with the college resit success figure, which of course includes only those who previously failed at his and other schools. The figures are incomparable.

Of the colleges inspected in the 2014 autumn term, 75% were graded as Requires Improvement (RI) or Inadequate, prompting Sir Michael’s statement: ‘The FE sector is in a mess – that’s why the government is reviewing it’. And what’s common to all but one of these failure judgements? That English and/or maths didn’t meet Wilshaw’s school-based comparisons. Even in instances where colleges had improved every aspect of their work except maths, the judgement was limited to RI.

But the most pernicious part of this story is the seeming ease with which Sir Michael ignores the paradigm shift in the FE sector – something not experienced by schools. In a recent poll of general FE colleges, the average increase in learners retaking GCSE English and/or maths as a result of Study Programmes was 184%. That’s 846 more per college, or something like 314,712 additional learners across all colleges; 12,588 additional cohorts annually. And there was a teacher shortage before that increase.

Three short phrases drive the work of the Centre for Creative Quality Improvement: Every system has an impact. Do you know what impact you’re having? Is it the one you want? The moment any management team addresses these questions, they see where they are failing in their strategies. Sir Michael would do well to heed this if he wants to help create the conditions for success. That he doesn’t, betrays his biased agenda and the creation of the conditions by which the sector can be branded a failure to serve his own ambitions for a schools-only sector – despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Ofsted needs to regain its reputation for objectivity and neutrality, or better still, work as did its previous partner, the ALI, to be a considerable part of the solution. An immediate indicator of their intentions would be a very vocal u-turn by its chief, or his immediate removal.

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