Senior managers' perceptions of the role of inspection in college improvement : a further education case study
The research focuses on the impact of inspection on improvements made in a single further education college over a two-year period. This college was deemed `inadequate' in early 2002 and was therefore subject to termly OfSTED monitoring visits. The college had a full reinspection in March of 2004, which resulted in the removal of the `inadequate' status and was generally positive about the improvements made. An environment thereföre existed that allowed the relationship between inspection and improvement to be studied in some detail. The literature review suggests that it is difficult to establish how the inspection process explicitly brings about improvement. The literature highlights that inspection is important for accountability purposes and supports approaches designed to measure effectiveness in the schools' sector through a form of summative evaluation. The links between inspection and improvement in formative ways are much less clear. The literature identifies that internal, rather than external, change is important in driving improvement and suggests that the role of inspection is legitimisation of these internal changes rather than having a direct influence on improvement. Qualitative research methods were used, with data coming mainly from the use of semistructured interviews with 13 senior managers. The researcher had an extensive professional involvement with the college, and the implications of this are explored in the methodology, but this allowed access also to supporting documentation and information. The findings showed that the heavy involvement of the college with the inspectorate over time revealed few of the negative impacts reported in schools' contexts. Certainly the inspection process was perceived to be dominated by the use of performance data and this approach gave little weight to contextual factors. Several senior managers saw inspection as empowering them in making improvements. It helped to inject pace, supported the defining of priorities for colleagues, and, in the context of monitoring visits, confirmed and ratified progress. Most significantly, however, it created a powerful solidarity between the senior managers. They became strong allies in ensuring that the college improved and the research reveals a strong consensus between the senior colleagues as to how this might happen. The research findings suggest that a community of practice created the focus for the organisational improvement. The role of inspection was seen as supporting this change through providing regular feedback on the progress made and contrasts were made. between the impact of inspection over time and a snapshot approach. Although the research findings are based in a single organisation they are significant in the context of recently announced policy changes to the OfSTED inspection methodology. There will be more involvement with the inspectorate over time allowing for regular feedback to support the social learning that supported improvements in the case study college. Greater emphasis will be given to college's own judgements as portrayed in self-assessmenrte ports. The new model of inspection therefore seemst o significantly enhance the potential of inspections to drive improvements in the further education sector, but the research findings suggest that inspection needs to link much more closely with improvement agendas generated from. within colleges if it is to be truly effective in supporting improvements.