From education to employment

Avoiding the Quality Assurance Rut: Strategies for Success

lou doyle

Our relationship with QA isn’t always a comfortable one. That’s worth exploring both as a sector and within each organisation to get the most from our investment in time and energy. At its best, a feature of governance; informing strategic decision-making, underpinning quality improvement, and building capacity.

I’ve thought a lot about why quality assurance in education seems to set itself apart from the equivalent discipline and profession in other sectors.

In some ways, it’s understandable. Assuring the quality of teaching and training is fundamentally different from assuring the quality of a manufactured product. There are fewer differences when comparing with service-based sectors, and even less so for public services. Whilst context matters, there is transferability between them. Being overly insular risks missing the potential to be more innovative in our approach. I’m curious about the lessons we can learn from a company like Lego, with such watertight processes, I doubt my children before I doubt them when I hear ‘Mum, there’s a piece missing!’ I am equally keen to unpick the similarities between observations of practice in health and education settings to see how we can do things differently.

QA can be transformational if we let it

Further education’s relationship with QA isn’t always a comfortable one. That’s worth exploring both as a sector and within each organisation to get the most from our investment in time and energy. At its best, a feature of governance; informing strategic decision-making, underpinning quality improvement, and building capacity. At its worst, an irritant, perceived to inappropriately challenge the autonomy of our teams, breeding a culture of policing above support.

I’ve observed the reasons for both scenarios up close many times over. Whilst it is overly simplistic to boil down to one thing, when we see QA as little more than an extension of a regulator, it limits our thinking. The idea that it is more transformational to fall short of an ambitious goal, than it is motivational to flop over the line of an externally set (average) standard, is a balance of risk that can only be struck when there’s trust at all layers of the system.

Without any doubt, I am confident that when QA is done well, the return on investment is significant. We see it, and assist the creation of it, many times over. Existing QA practice is the first place we look when we are working with providers to help identify and resolve problems impacting on outcomes. It underpins our ‘no surprises’ mantra when it comes to external regulation such as Ofsted inspections. Ultimately, effective QA informs and encourages sustainable change beyond sticking plasters.

Problems to solve

Here are four areas I think we can work collaboratively on to improve QA practice,

  1. The focus is often exclusively on teaching and learning, missing a holistic approach to quality improvement. Quality (like sales) is everyone’s job.
  2. There’s not enough focus on structured process improvement, where a relentless approach to taking a mallet to non-value-added steps, saves time and money when cashflow is high on everyone’s priority list.
  3. The model for continuous professional development and professional accreditation for QA employees exists but is too limited and limiting.
  4. QA leaders don’t always have a seat at the senior table, or report findings and recommendations to boards of governors or non-executives.

Ideas to solve them

With that in mind, here are seven ideas to consider that may help to supercharge your own approach:

  1. Ensure there’s a consistent understanding of the standards you’re aiming to reach. The nature of a regulated sector means there is a tendency to draw a direct line from the regulator(s) to QA activities. This misses out the key step of interpreting externally set standards in the context of your own KPIs. Doing so gives depth to your QA activities and reduces the risk of taking a foot off the peddle unless you’re in an Ofsted window.
  2. Effective QA is intrinsically linked with culture. It’s easy to fill up time ‘doing QA’ but you may as well not bother if you don’t listen to what the findings are telling you. Look at your QA approach through the lens of culture, trust, and encouraging agency.
  3. Ask yourself what you’re doing with the outcomes from QA activity. Where is it discussed? What action has it driven? With what impact? If the answer is ‘not much,’ pause and rethink.
  4. Broaden your approach to quality assurance and improvement. Encourage teams in all roles to identify the things they do that waste time for them, learners, or employers. Prioritise problematic processes and bring together cross-functional sprint teams to unpick the issues and identify quick win changes and longer-term solutions.
  5. Identify career paths for your quality assurance professionals and the associated CPD needed to develop. Support and encourage them to look outside of education to build a broader network of QA professionals who they can learn from. Consider how to resource extending QA processes beyond teaching and learning.
  6. Look back over your senior leader and board minutes. Where do reporting outcomes of QA activity feature? Be specific in identifying where they have informed strategic decisions, directly impacted on building capacity, or resulted in evidence-based investment to improve quality.
  7. Check in with your team periodically. How do they view QA? As a source of support to help their development, remove barriers to quality, and fight their corner in the board room? Or a tick-box job to keep the regulators happy?

We recognise that Mesma and our many excellent partners, play a part in this too. Our plans to support and celebrate good practice continuously evolve. The launch of the Quality Professional Awards and a new round of Improvement Partnerships that focus on the processes underpinning QA are just two of the commitments we’ve made in 2024. The way in which we use AI within assurance processes is an exciting step change and one that our AI advisory board will help to guide. Let’s keep talking, learning, and improving.

When QA feels too complex or difficult, here’s my favourite question to ask your team; ‘If you could change one thing you have to do that gets on your nerves, what would it be?’ Be warned when you ask it the first time – the list might be quite long.

By Lou Doyle, Chief Executive Officer of Mesma

Mesma is an awarding winning provider of QA software, bringing together all aspects of the quality cycle, online resources, reporting tools, and research-informed advisory and training services. We work with hundreds of further education and employability providers to implement quality management strategies that work.

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