Outsiders looking in

March 10, 2000

As Ofsted moves into FE colleges, Chris Woodhead argues that universities might also benefit from having an inspector call

Subject to the will of Parliament, the remit of school inspectors will soon be extended to include the education of 16 to 19-year-olds in further education colleges. This development has prompted the odd expression of concern.

"Why should the Office of Standards for Education and Training now be inspecting FE colleges?" some have asked. Why indeed? How can Ofsted's approach to inspection strengthen thinking about accountability in further education? How, I might mischievously ask, could our approach benefit higher education?

Six principles have underpinned our work so far with schools, local education authorities and teacher training institutions. These are:

* The inspectorate must be independent from the government, on the one hand, and the profession, on the other

* Judgements must be made against objective and transparent standards

* The inspection must focus on the relationship between the quality of teaching and the achievement of the student

* Bureaucratic demands must be kept to a minimum

* Reports must be as intelligible and as useful to our potential audiences (students, parents, schools and colleges, government) as we can make them

* Intervention must, as the government likes to put it, be in inverse proportion to success.

A question: do you agree with these principles? A second, perhaps more provocative question: to what extent do current approaches to "quality assurance" in further and higher education conform to the principles?

The answer to this latter question may well be that they do not and should not. What matters, I have been told time and again, is the university or college's ability to review its own performance, not some outmoded, punitive system of external inspection.

It will not surprise many that I do not see external inspection in quite this light. The advantage of external inspection over internal review is that it is external. However reflective and honest and courageous we might be, most of us accept much of our working lives as a given. We stop asking questions and come to take working practices and the values that underpin them for granted. The great value of a good Ofsted inspection is that it looks at everything with a fresh eye. It challenges the status quo and the institution that has been inspected will benefit from that challenge.

I recognise that successful colleges invest a great deal of time and energy in reviewing their own performance. I accept that their success depends to a very real extent on the rigour of this review. My point is simply that external inspection and internal systems of quality assurance should not be seen as in conflict. We need to move, and quickly, beyond what is a false and unhelpful dichotomy.

We need also to ensure that both inspection and internal quality assurance are kept as simple and straightforward as possible.

The cris de coeur of those in higher education who feel over-inspected and over-audited by a proliferation of bodies with different requirements and methodologies seem, from where I stand, to grow louder by the day.

The challenge, as the Quality Assurance Agency knows, is to create a credible and simple system acceptable to all.

We have a terrible tendency in education to complicate what ought to be straightforward. All too often we forget that there is a link between the smooth rhetoric of the development plan and the messy reality of what is actually taught. We are tempted to focus on the former and to tiptoe nervously round the latter.

In our understandable quest for objectivity and reliability we run the risk of sinking deeper and deeper into the mechanistic mire. Check-lists and grading schemes and paper chases may, perhaps, have a place. What really matters, however, is the professional judgement: are these students making the progress they should?

If not, why not? Inspection is never easy, but it ought to be much less complex than we sometimes make it.

Why should Ofsted inspect further education? The decision to extend our remit was political and others will have a view on why it was taken. I can only say I welcome it and look forward to working with college principals and the adult learning inspectorate to develop a system of inspection that makes sense to those in the sector. I believe, immodestly, that we have a good deal to offer.

Chris Woodhead is Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. Would universities benefit from being inspected by Ofsted? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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