Post-16 chiefs fight the gloom traders

August 11, 2000

Further education leaders have accused ministers and quality watchdogs of using new post-16 area inspections to "knock" colleges.

Press releases issued by the Department for Education and Employment and the inspection agency Ofsted implied that further education was to blame for poor post-16 planning in Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Newcastle, Coventry, and Hackney and Islington, said the Association of Colleges.

Yet reports on inspections of post-16 provision in these areas, published this month, indicate that colleges are generally doing a good job, particularly in helping ethnic minority and underachieving school-leavers.

The AoC objected to comments in an Ofsted press release, which accused colleges of wasting resources and depressing achievement, and from education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone, who called for "radical change" in Lambeth and rapid improvements in the other areas.

David Gibson, AoC chief executive, said ministers and inspection chiefs appeared to be "almost enjoying the negatives" contained in the reports while ignoring the many positive points.

"We would accept there has been a lack of planning in this area, but strategic planning has not been the responsibility of colleges. We are happy to take on the challenges presented in these reports, but we are not happy with the spin put on them by the DFEE and Ofsted," he said.

Ministers are hoping that Ofsted's area inspection reports will allow direct comparisons between public and private further education providers and lead to the reorganisation of provision in areas that need it.

But college chiefs fear they may be used to impose government national goals on regions, irrespective of local conditions. Ofsted will take the lead on post-16 inspection from April under the new Learning and Skills Council regime.

Most of the criticisms following last week's reports were based on the inspection of Lambeth, which found low proportions of students completing courses and low levels of achievement. But the report also says that most post-16 teaching and training in Lambeth is satisfactory, and much of it is good.

Lambeth College, the only further education college in the area, is successful in encouraging disadvantaged young people, the report says. The college enables "relatively large" numbers of students to progress from foundation to intermediate, and from intermediate to advanced level programmes, it adds.

Social deprivation indicators place Lambeth as the 12th most deprived local authority area in England, with a high proportion of its population from ethnic minority groups for whom English is a second language.

A common theme in the reports is low achievement and high levels of migration among young people at school, leaving the post-16 providers in the areas with a lot of ground to make up to achieve achievement and retention norms.

In Lambeth, inspectors said "patterns of post-16 education are strongly affected by the fact that about half of pupils resident in Lambeth move out of the borough for their secondary education".

In Coventry, "the significant difference in performance from the national average at the age of 16 is almost eliminated after two years of post-compulsory education and training".

A report on action needed at Hackney and Islington says it is "unfortunate" that inspectors failed to note in their original report "the large loss of students at the age of 11 to schools outside the inspection area", which has "an important bearing on participation rates and levels of achievement".

The Hackney and Islington follow-up report, from education adviser Simon Jenkin, acknowledges that issues for attention set out at the end of the area inspection report "do not seem to flow logically from the main body of the report or its conclusions".

Another common theme is that post-16 strategic planning in the areas is incoherent and fragmented and is hampered by competition rather than collaboration between providers.

Coventry is a possible model for improvement. The Coventry area report says the setting up of a 14-24 Forum in the area three years ago has been "highly beneficial" in creating dialogue between schools and training providers and establishing important links with Coventry University.

However, the government's own planning arrangements have not helped Hackney and Islington. The Jenkin report says the decision to separate the boroughs into different local learning and skills council areas "is unfortunate and illogical".

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