In May 2019, the Post-18 Review of Education and Funding conducted by Philip Augar recommended that “Ofsted become the lead responsible body for the inspection of the quality of apprenticeships at all levels”. While many of Augar’s other recommendations fell by the wayside, this one was fully adopted. From April 2021, the remit of Ofsted was expanded to encompass higher and degree-level apprenticeship provision, bringing many more HE providers into their gravitational pull. In turn, many HE leaders have been handed the dubious honour of being an ‘Ofsted nominee’, the senior member of staff who acts as a provider’s main link with the inspection team.
I have spoken to a range of designated nominees and senior HE colleagues with recent Ofsted inspection experience. What, I asked, were their top tips for surviving the inspection process and main lessons learned? Here is my summary of their collective thoughts and insights.
Who you gonna call?…hearing from Ofsted
Answer the phone. When Ofsted calls, you don’t want them to hear an answerphone. Make sure Ofsted have a phone number that will always be answered, by someone who knows exactly what to do next. If your inspection is imminent, make sure your nominee has their phone, laptop and power cable with them at all times!
Don’t panic. As senior leaders, your role is to keep calm and instil confidence. Ensure your nominee and core team members (and, importantly, their deputies) have a clear ’48 hour plan’ of what to do when you get the call. Make the most of sector resources and templates to help you prepare, particularly from UVAC (the University Vocational Awards Council) and FIN (the Fellowship of Inspection Nominees). Speak to others who have gone through the inspection process for first-hand experiences.
It’s been a hard day’s night…during the inspection
Be kind. Regardless of the outcome, the inspection process is bruising for staff involved. Expect long hours and high anxiety. Ensure your core team have a well-equipped ‘base room’ complete with stationery supplies, comfy seats, coffee and tasty treats. Ensure senior colleagues offer reassurance and visible support.
Don’t be afraid to challenge. Your Ofsted inspectors will establish ‘lines of enquiry’ for the inspection based on the initial evidence you supply. If you think perceptions are incorrect – question them. If you think conclusions are unreasonable or unrepresentative of your wider provision – dispute them. Always back up your arguments with evidence – data, case studies, work examples, stakeholder feedback. If you don’t have scheduled teaching while inspectors are on site, offer alternatives to help them understand your provision, such as observing tripartite reviews. Your nominee will have daily ‘keeping-in-touch’ meetings with Ofsted inspectors – make full use of these to ask questions, share additional information and raise concerns.
Be honest. The Ofsted process is rigorous – don’t expect success if your strategy is to hide skeletons in the cupboard. Be open about the challenges you face – balance an appraisal of your strengths alongside clear awareness of areas for improvement. Show how you have been proactive in assessing and enhancing your provision.
Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance
Build understanding and awareness. Well in advance of any inspection, you need to be prepared. Make the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework and the Further Education and Skills Handbook your bedtime reading. Ensure apprentices and employers understand the role and requirements of Ofsted from the start – build this into your induction processes. If you have Ofsted-experienced contacts amongst your staff or networks, use them to help with briefings and preparation. Share a glossary of key terms – as with apprentices, jargon and abbreviations are everywhere. Brief your governors and encourage them to scrutinise your self-assessment – and importantly, take good minutes to use as evidence later on!
Evidence, evidence, evidence. Think about creating evidence, not just collating it. You should certainly have an up-to-date Self-Assessment Report (SAR) and Quality Improvement Plan (QIP), with supporting material to back up your conclusions. You need disaggregated programme- and institutional-level data, alongside evidence of how this has been analysed, discussed and acted upon. Compile apprentice and employer case studies to show the impact of your provision. Ensure there is a clear audit trail to show the scrutiny of apprenticeship provision through your governance structures.
Get safeguarding right. Ofsted places a huge focus on safeguarding – if this isn’t judged effective, your whole inspection is in jeopardy. Make sure relevant policies and procedures reference apprentices explicitly. Ofsted inspectors will want to sample training and DBS records – so make sure these are up-to-date and demonstrate compliance. Expect questioning about Prevent and your regional context; adherence to British Values; your approach to addressing sexual violence and misconduct; and how you ensure apprentices stay safe both on campus and online.
Say thank you. Whatever your inspection outcome, take time to appreciate the contributions of all staff involved. Write to your students, governors and employer representatives, many of whom will have made time at very short notice to complete surveys and meet inspectors.
Start work on the sequel. If you’ve just had a monitoring visit, or a full visit with a less than ‘Good’ outcome, then you can count on Ofsted being back soon. Whatever the result of your inspection, take time to highlight the positives, document lessons learned and seek feedback from all involved.
Every cloud has a silver lining. I asked colleagues about the benefits and frustrations of the Ofsted inspection process. The frustrations were clear – the lack of notice (48 hours, plus a weekend if you’re lucky), the administrative burden, inspectors’ insufficient understanding of the higher education context. However there were also positives – the Ofsted process helps to focus minds on the distinct needs of apprentices, to identify gaps and to drive improvements in provision.
Everyone I spoke to holds the view that Ofsted is in HE to stay. As a sector, we must be proactive in ensuring Ofsted inspectors understand our provision and ask questions appropriate to our context. We should share our experiences and help others prepare and develop. Crucially, we must also push for better dialogue between Ofsted, the Office for Students (OfS) and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), to ensure a joined-up approach to regulation and reduce unnecessary burden. For English providers, the new priorities set out by the Director for Fair Access and Participation include the expansion of degree apprenticeships. If we are to achieve this, we must ensure that the Ofsted regime works with and for our sector.