Ofsted inspections for Adult Community Learning providers: six new trends

I’ve recently carried out an analysis of OFSTED inspection reports for Adult Community Learning (ACL) providers to try and understand what the trends are, in terms of both grades awarded and common areas for improvement.

Whilst it’s a snapshot in time and isn’t representative of any hidden knowledge or more complex analysis than me reading all the reports and coming to my own conclusions, it suggests some interesting themes.

Of the 55 providers who had either a full or short inspection from 1 November 2017 to 30 April 2018, 62.2% were deemed to be either Outstanding or Good, although that only represents one provider with a Grade 1. And of course, it means that nearly 40% of ACL providers either Require Improvement or are judged to be Inadequate. (Interestingly a very similar figure to this year’s inspections of apprenticeship providers, quoted by Paul Joyce of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate at the recent AELP conference, with 59% Outstanding or Good).

Drilling down behind the raw data to look at common issues and areas for improvement is even more interesting. Here are the themes which emerged from the 55 provider reports I reviewed. Where I have used quotes from reports, they have been included as typical examples of comments made across multiple reports sampled:

"Of the 55 providers who had either a full or short inspection from 1 November 2017 to 30 April 2018, 62.2% were deemed to be either Outstanding or Good"

Prevent duty:

Although this is one of the newest additions to the areas covered by the Common Inspection Framework (CIF), it has been around for some time now, so I was a bit surprised that even fairly mature ACL providers are still failing to meet the requirements. I suspect this is because providers are falling in to the trap of treating Prevent as a paper exercise, where you create checklists and policies and think that’s all the organisation needs to do. Inspectors don’t decide on the impact of your Prevent Duty policy by looking at the document – they ask learners what they know about Prevent and anti-radicalisation.  And that’s exactly what you as providers need to do to understand how well your organisation is fulfilling its Prevent Duty and how much more you need to do. The real shame about this area of weakness is that ACL providers are probably better placed than any other types of provider to promote the Prevent agenda, being embedded as they are in the grassroots of local communities.

English and maths

A perennial favourite of Ofsted inspectors which appears to be a persistent issue in the sector, with providers failing to use opportunities to embed and reinforce English and maths in other learning. Where English and maths are the learning aims, several providers had low achievement rates cited in their inspection report.

Reinforcing English and maths when delivering other Adult Community Learning is a delicate balance. For many learners ACL is their first contact with education for many years and is a hugely brave step to take. It’s understandable that tutors don’t want to knock what little confidence learners may be building through their new-found enjoyment of learning by being critical or perceived as picky or pedantic, for example in correcting grammar. Often ACL tutors are lacking in confidence in English and maths themselves, having had no formal learning in these subjects for many years. But whatever the barriers, ACL providers who fail to do this are missing a great opportunity to positively impact a learner’s life skills – and what’s more, as far as Ofsted are concerned, it’s not going away!

Feedback to learners

Feedback is critical to help learners understand their progress and what they need to do to improve and achieve their learning aims. Inspectors criticised providers for a lack of timeliness in giving feedback to learners preventing it from having the impact it should on the learner’s development and progress. For some providers they highlighted the poor quality of feedback (and in some cases providers were criticised for both!).


Where providers had observations singled out as an area for improvement, this was generally not because they weren’t taking place but because the focus of observations was about process or performance and not impact on learners.

“…. observers of teaching and learning focus too much on the activity of the tutor and not enough on learners’ progress and skills development”

Ofsted Report - Grade 2 Local Authority provider

Observation isn’t a box-ticking exercise: if you aren’t going to identify weaknesses, set improvement actions and then monitor the impact of those actions, observations are just a waste of precious resource (and an additional stressor for delivery staff).

Initial assessment

Providers are failing to use initial assessment (IA) to inform planning of learning, set learning at correct levels, differentiate tasks set and realise learner potential. Much like observations, where initial assessment is concerned, the activity is taking place but is not being followed up throughout the learner journey - or used to positively impact the learning experience as much as it could. (In fairness to the ACL providers in this sample, I’ve seen this trend  across apprenticeship providers too.)

“Tutors do not take sufficient account of individual learners’ starting points, including their prior skills, to teach lessons that meet learners’ differing needs and abilities. Consequently, the most able learners are not challenged sufficiently in their learning and do not achieve their potential, and the less able learners find the work too hard.”

Ofsted Report - Grade 3 Local Authority provider

I think that this may not be an indicator of a deterioration of IA practice at ACL providers but more that some have failed to align their practice to the shift in Ofsted’s focus from looking at achievement rates, to also considering progress and distance travelled.

Interestingly, in the arena of apprenticeships, IA and subsequent measurement against progress is gaining increasing importance and this looks likely to spread to other types of provision, with it being…

“…. most probable that we will see a separate grade awarded for attitudes and behaviours” in the revised Common Inspection Framework.

Paul Joyce, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, keynote speech, AELP conference, 25 June 2018

 Use of data

Leadership teams are failing to use accurate and timely data to understand their provision, areas for improvement and progress being made against improvement targets. 

“Managers are overgenerous in their evaluation of the quality of their provision. They do not use management information sufficiently well to inform their judgements. Data analysis to inform actions to improve the service is superficial or absent. Data reviewed by managers are not accurate or timely enough to enable managers to improve the quality of provision.”

Ofsted Report - Grade 3 Local Authority provider

And before we all get too complacent, it’s not just Grade 3 providers:

"Leaders and managers do not analyse the performance between different groups of learners and therefore do not identify or take action when variations exist.”

Ofsted Report - Grade 2 Local Authority provider

Whilst this is listed as a separate area for improvement, in reality any improvement activity in any of the other areas identified needs to be underpinned by good use of data: timely and appropriate data, consistently collected, regularly reviewed and crucially, accessible and in a format that is easily understood by everyone invested in delivering those improvements. (BI dashboards can be used to effectively surface data from learner management systems, allowing self-service access to real- time data for key stakeholders and SMTs).

Apart from the Prevent Duty requirements, none of the above is new or surprising as a core part of good quality learning delivery. I know it’s tough for ACL providers who are trying to do all of this on ever-tighter budgets, delivering to hard-to-reach individuals, in cohorts spread across multiple sites in a sector that seems to be going through perpetual change. I also know that ACL has the power to transform lives and if as a sector it’s going to keep fighting its corner (especially as devolution looms), we need to address the figure of nearly 40% of providers being judged as Requires Improvement or Inadequate.

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