Mergers fail to boost FE standards, says Ofsted

Pairing poor-performing colleges with higher education institutions is not improving provision significantly. John Morgan reports

October 30, 2009

Mergers between low-achieving further education colleges and higher education institutions have failed to raise standards significantly, according to a review by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate.

The review, published today, explores why further education has “flourished in some higher education institutions but not in others”.

Ofsted reports: “The mergers of higher education institutions with satisfactory or failing general further education colleges have not led to significant improvement in the quality of the further education provision.”

Of the least successful partnerships, the review notes: “Too many [further education] students had failed to achieve their qualification, get the grades expected of them or complete their course of study.”

Successful mergers have mainly been between specialist institutions, particularly in the creative arts, it adds.

Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, has said that the Government will do more to bring higher and further education closer together, making passage between the two systems easier for students.

Ofsted recommends that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills take its findings into account when reviewing proposed mergers, and consider how to improve its support for institutions that have already merged.

The review also recommends that higher education institutions establish “clear lines of accountability for further education provision at both senior and middle-management levels”.

In 2007-08, 32 English higher education institutions offered further education provision, with 45,500 students enrolled on programmes funded by £94 million from the Learning and Skills Council.

Ofsted’s report, Summary Review of Further Education Provision in Higher Education 2003-09, is based on inspections. In the most recent audit cycle, completed this year, inspectors looked at 13 higher education institutions to review progress since their previous inspections.

Concerns about standards raised by these visits led to further inspections for six of the 13 institutions, the review notes.

In the least successful further education provision, quality assurance arrangements were “not consistently or rigorously implemented”, the review says, partly because “one institution-wide system designed primarily for higher education was not ideally suited to further education, and operating two separate systems led to overly complex reporting arrangements”.

In good or better provision, the review says, the further education curriculum offered was relatively narrow.

“For example, three of the most successful institutions specialised in the creative arts, where the rationale for the further education provision was clear in that it was primarily preparation for progression into higher education, often within the same institution,” Ofsted says.

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