Farming feature: College leaders pick themselves up after ‘bombshell’ Ofsted report
- Credit: Archant
Easton and Otley College was dealt a body-blow when Ofsted inspectors rated it ‘inadequate’ for the second year in a row in a hard-hitting report published on November 12, 2018, but the college leadership remains determined to turn it around.
There is a steely sense of determination in the principal’s office at Easton and Otley College after a second highly critical Ofsted report which has left the whole team reeling.
Sitting in the Otley campus office, the sense of frustration felt by principal Jane Townsend and chair of governors Mark Pendlington is palpable. They do feel that they are on the right track, and that they were unlucky that the Ofsted inspectors arrived just when they did - a few weeks into the new college year, and with new teachers and students bedding in on courses. Earlier in the year, there had been budget cuts and job losses as management sought to put the college on a sound financial footing.
Five key areas out of eight at the college have been deemed ‘inadequate’, yet the report suggests Jane, newly installed in March and the senior leadership team, have put in place “clear, detailed and ambitious actions to improve the quality of education from a very low base”.
Both feel that the college suffered a steady decline over four or five years after Easton College in Norfolk and Otley College in Suffolk were merged - a move that was encouraged and sanctioned by the authorities at the time.
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They also point out that every step of the way, with every move they have made since the first Ofsted ‘inadequate’ rating in May of last year put under intense scrutiny, with armies of educational experts flowing in and out, no one has suggested they are on the wrong track or have made a bad call in all of the difficult challenges they have faced since.
Despite the inspectors arriving at a difficult juncture, all the signs were looking good: the last of three monitoring visit reports in May noted “much stronger leadership of teaching and learning” which ensured teachers were now clear about being held accountable for the progress and achievement of their learners. Plans to ensure that the progress of learners were monitored were “now coming to fruition”
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Out of six areas, the college was found to be making ‘significant progress’ in two areas, and ‘reasonable progress’ in the others.
But when the Ofsted team came in October, all of that progress was lost, they feel, in a deeply flawed and rigid inspection system which left inspectors with little latitude. Both believe that change in the inspection system itself can’t come soon enough.
“The thing that’s deeply disappointing is all the monitors said: ‘We can’t think of anything else you should be doing,’” says Mark.
“What Jane and the team have achieved here after four or five years of decline which wasn’t arrested - Jane has come in with a new team, strongly focused, got a hold of the finances, took £3m off the finances.”
For Jane, who has seen through some difficult changes since coming into post, including cutting 80 full-time posts, half of them teaching ones, across the two campuses, the frustration has been that experts can see that the right course of action has been taken, but inspectors can only judge the college in a very narrow sense, taking a slice in time. “It’s very much ‘computer says’,” she points out.
The budget cuts were “impactful”, 21% of teachers were being trained, and there were historic courses and other factors beyond their control, she admits, but the report was still “an absolute bombshell”, given the progress she felt had been made. “We were shocked.”
Since May of last year, there have been 58 monitoring visits to the college by a host of educational officials from different departments. “They were really supportive of the work - they have all said: ‘There’s nothing you could have done differently,’” says Jane.
Both say they are “really confident” that they have put in place measures that will turn around the college’s fortunes soon.
But the pair also point out that across the further education sector there have been half a dozen or so resignations in recent times as it comes under intense budgetary and other pressures.
Times are hard, but they have been heartened by the many messages of support they have received from parents and sector leaders since the Ofsted report was published on Monday (October 12). “The silver lining has been the support,” says Jane.
Strong stakeholder support is a vital component of the college’s recovery, they believe.
“I’m determined we come out of this stronger than we went into it,” says Mark. “We have to be resilient and tough - and no more so than now.”
The college is inviting everyone with an interest in its future to write in to it with their comments and messages. College supporters, parents and members of the public are also invited to listen to a public message from Jane Townsend by phoning 01603 731540.