Could our different inspectors please talk to each other?

Or, at the very least, could they appear to know of one another’s existence?

Halfway through the second day of the inspection, I visited a class of ten functional skills students with my designated “deep dive” inspector. They ranged in ability from entry level 1 up to Level 1. If you teach functional skills yourself, you’ll know this means it’s a challenging group to pitch a lesson to. After we left, the inspector asked me, with a knowing smile,

“Do you think that is a viable group?”

“In what sense?” I asked, thinking ahead like a chess player trying to work out where the trap was being laid.

“In terms or the range of abilities and needs in the session.”

“It’s certainly a challenge.” I replied, remaining non-committal until I knew where this round was going.

“Are you under pressure from SLT to avoid splitting the class? Is it about saving money?” The question seemed, to me at least, to imply that saving money was a grubby motive. It irked me a little and my game slipped.

“Yes, of course.” She looked surprised, as though I had willingly confessed to a crime. “We’re always under pressure to keep class sizes up. But not from SLT. When we’re audited, we’ll be challenged if they are too low.”

“Oh,” she said, “who audits you?”

What a question! Who audits us? The FE commissioner’s inspections are almost as stressful as Ofsted inspections, and the ramifications of a poor outcome are every bit as serious for the staff and students. The annual internal audits are a huge part of management’s workload at the end of the year.

This may have seemed like a small thing to the (Ofsted) inspection team we dealt with. Indeed, the off-hand comment that was quickly forgotten and we moved on to other conversations, but it highlighted to me one of the fundamental tensions running through the heart of FE. We are a public service acting like a business. Or is it the other way around? It probably depends on whether you ask a curriculum manager or the head of finance.

We struggle, under decades of funding neglect, to provide certain basics for our students. The financial pressure means we are constantly pushing for new enrolments (for new business) and pushing back at the boundaries of what we should accept in classroom standards.

The way we are inspected in FE reflects the duality of our mission. The FE Commissioner inspects the college from a perspective of financial competence. They want to know whether we are running well as a business. Their concerns about classes are limited to whether teachers are being well utilised. Are classes too small? If they are, they could be merged, and the college would make a saving. Are teachers given too much “free” time for planning and development? If so, they could be reduced in number. It’s about making sure public money is being spent efficiently.

Ofsted, however, have a different agenda. They are focussed purely on the educational experience of the students. They don’t care how much an intervention costs if it’s good for learning. An Ofsted inspector sees one-to-one sessions with struggling students and gives a big thumbs up. An auditor looks at the same thing and sees a waste of money.

As funding gets tighter, these two agendas come into increasing conflict and it would be nice if the two organisations would speak to each other. At best, they could agree on certain approaches to give a consistent message. At the least, they could make sure they both know the other one exists.