Picking up the pieces

Staff morale can be badly affected at colleges criticised by Ofsted inspectors. Neil Merrick hears how some institutions are questioning the inspection process

By the time inspectors called on West Herts College again last week - their second visit in six months - they could not fail to have been aware of the crisis it is facing. Morale has been low since teachers and students returned at the start of the summer term. Having already accumulated debts of £3.5m, the college had just received a damning report from the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) that blamed poor management for most of its problems.

By the time inspectors called on West Herts College again last week - their second visit in six months - they could not fail to have been aware of the crisis it is facing. Morale has been low since teachers and students returned at the start of the summer term. Having already accumulated debts of £3.5m, the college had just received a damning report from the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) that blamed poor management for most of its problems.

The governors had pre-empted the report by drafting in Tony Pitcher, a further education consultant and former principal, to run the college for 12 months. All staff have to re-apply for their jobs and, with 120 redundancies looming once the re-inspection is completed, the lecturers' union Natfhe claims that relations with managers have hit rock bottom.

West Herts is not the only college to feel the wrath of the inspectors this year. Ofsted has declared standards inadequate at Oakland College, also in Hertfordshire, and at Reading College.

The flurry of poor reports has led to a heated debate over whether Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI), which share responsibility for further-education inspections, are presenting a fair image of colleges. Natfhe, meanwhile, claims its members are being punished for mistakes made by others.

Elizabeth Martins, a Natfhe regional official, says it is not always the fault of teachers that enrolments fall or lessons are poor. "Managers use inspectors' reports to discipline and intimidate lecturing staff who have no opportunity to update their skills," she says.

Ironically, staff at West Herts did not come out of Ofsted's report too badly. Although the inspectors said that teaching had to improve, the overall standard was judged satisfactory (grade three), whereas managers and governors were described as weak (grade five).

One teacher, who did not want to be identified, thought the Ofsted inspectors had more idea of what they were doing than those from the Further Education Funding Council, which inspected colleges prior to 2001. "They asked the right questions," he says. Morale is low, he claims, because of the threatened redundancies and other management decisions. Like most staff, he is updating his CV and looking for a post elsewhere. "It's a real insult to have to re-apply for our jobs," says the teacher.

According to Natfhe, the problems could not have come at a worse time - just as students prepare for exams that may determine whether West Herts hits funding targets. "It's hardly conducive to encouraging staff to be motivated to ensure that students achieve," says Martins.

Pitcher denies that relations are as poor as Natfhe claims, but does not underestimate the scale of the task. "There was gloom and despondency, but there is a willingness to address the issues," he says. Ofsted's report, while hardly a surprise, made change unavoidable. "It became impossible to blame external forces," he adds.

Although Pitcher was not at West Herts when it was inspected in November, he queries whether inspectors generally appreciate the complexity of a FE college when they see only a sample of lessons. "It's like walking around a building, checking on the bricks without recognising the cathedral that you are working in," he cautions.

It is an issue raised regularly by the Association of Colleges, which says the situation is exacerbated by a shortage of inspectors. "It's often quite difficult to find part-time inspectors of an appropriate calibre," says Rosemary Clark, the AoC's quality manager.

Too often, she adds, inspectors look at colleges in the same way as schools, and do not take account of the range of learners. "Colleges don't feel they are given credit for the contribution they make towards tackling social exclusion," says Clark. "It's demoralising [for teachers] to have their good efforts criticised in this way."

The Association for College Management (ACM) is also aggrieved, suggesting that too often managers are automatically given low grades because standards are poor in some subjects. Peter Pendle, the ACM's chief executive, stresses it does not defend bad management, but wants Ofsted/ALI to use a lighter touch, and adopt the role of a "critical friend" to help colleges find ways to improve. He denies managers use poor inspections as an excuse to punish staff, but points out that radical change is often the only solution. "Some colleges desperately need to raise their game," says Pendle. "When that happens, people can sometimes get hurt in the process."

David Singleton, head of post-compulsory education at Ofsted, admits it is sometimes difficult to find inspectors in construction, hairdressing and beauty therapy, but denies that recruitment is a major problem. Although inspectors do not have a statutory remit to tell colleges what to do, he says: "If inspection didn't contribute to improvement, it would be hard to know what we did it for."

After the current round of inspections is completed next year, Ofsted and ALI would prefer a new system of annual visits that does not entail such rigorous inspection but which places more emphasis on self-evaluation. "We are looking to reduce the burden of inspection," he adds.

According to Singleton, FE colleges are more concerned about bureaucracy linked to funding than inspections. Ninety per cent give a positive evaluation following an Ofsted/ALI visit.

But, in the case of a minority of colleges, he does not apologise for the repercussions of a poor report.

"We regret the fact that people are going through traumas, but we are doing our job," says Singleton. "At the end of it all, we hope that something better comes out of it for the learner."

WHAT OFSTED IS REALLY FOR

College inspections have been the joint responsibility of Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate since 2001. By December 2005, they should have inspected all 375 FE and sixth-form colleges in England.

In theory, Ofsted inspects most 16-19 courses, while ALI checks on work-based and adult learning. In practice, inspections are joint affairs - led by whichever inspectorate is responsible for the majority of teaching in the college - but the final report is always published by Ofsted.

The team is usually made up of no more than six core inspectors, plus about 20 part-time inspectors who study different curriculum areas. If a college is judged inadequate, it is reinspected over two years and must tell its local learning and skills council how it plans to improve.

During the 2002/2003 year, Ofsted/ALI visited 118 colleges - 33 of which were deemed outstanding and 13 inadequate. Last autumn, they visited a further 48 - 14 of which were judged outstanding and eight inadequate.

education@independent.co.uk

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