Those dreaded words every provider of education never wants to hear can either make or break you as an educational leader. After seven days of inspection, sitting in a room with the Lead Ofsted Inspector, to be told that your provision Requires Improvement can be a crushing moment.
But looking back to February 2019, I often reflect on that period as what made me a leader and what formed my incredible team. Three long years have passed since then, with profound changes, a global pandemic, and a reformed provision beyond anything we expected.
The team’s response
When I informed my team of the Ofsted result in 2019, I saw disappointment and despair but also a determination to take the bull by the horns and turn this outcome around. A clear and robust post-inspection plan helps to focus on the priorities. It sets up a period of regular review to track our progress, adapt strategies and have assurances that you are making headway in tackling the issues at hand.
At Catch22, we aim to give every individual in need of support three key things we identify as the ‘3Ps’; a good network of people around them, a safe place to live, and a purpose of building a future for themselves. Our colleges work with young people aged 16-19 (up to 24 with an EHCP), many of whom cannot thrive in a mainstream educational setting or have significant behavioural, social, or emotional barriers to their learning. Our class sizes are small to enable greater engagement and pastoral support to every learner.
The first priority was to create a curriculum based around the localised needs of each college, to deliver a suite of qualifications that would be valued by local employers and give our students the best opportunity to fill vacancies in their communities.
However, an excellent curriculum is hard to enact if you do not have highly qualified staff to deliver it. Hence, a meticulous approach to providing our workforce access to relevant and impactful professional development was the next stage, linking it to the Education Inspection Framework to ensure everything was aligned. It meant that the delivery of our curriculum improved, and staff were consistently engaged in their own upskilling.
Next, streamlining our footprint and standardising the pedagogy across all college sites and qualifications was critical to ensuring all students received the same experience. We were creating a culture that allowed our staff to raise the expectations of our students and apprentices, where we held each other to account, and where we had high aspirations for career progression facilitated better attendance, calm environments, and improved outcomes for everyone.
Nine months after the initial Ofsted judgement, a follow-up visit in November 2019 resulted in a Reasonable Progress judgement, assuring that we were on the right track. Then, the world came to a standstill when the COVID-19 pandemic struck; our colleges had to close while we continued supporting the most vulnerable. Our apprenticeship provision had to transform to online delivery overnight.
The team immediately rose to the occasion. It is staggering to recall the pressure felt by everyone in having to juggle isolation, lockdowns, mental health strains on colleagues, family, and our learners. Still, the resilience of our team meant learners had the steadiness of our course delivery throughout the pandemic.
Reforming our delivery
The following 12 months were a turning point in delivering our programmes. We now had the opportunity to overhaul how we wanted to deliver apprenticeships moving forward.
Moving on from the ‘old’ method of face-to-face visits every month and costly trips between learner and provider, we instead provided online tutorials, moved face-to-face sessions online, and reduced daily travel for trainers. Learners reported having more protected time for their studies, and our Distinction rates across our apprenticeships dramatically increased.
The changes made across our provisions improved every measurable metric. When you work in alternative provision, the yardsticks that Ofsted measures are often difficult to achieve with our learner profile. We work with young people who face some of the most challenging barriers, including homelessness, being in the care system, and low educational starting points. Yet, we are expected to achieve the same achievement rates as the providers who cherry-pick the highest performing students. At Catch22, across our education, vocational training, and employability services, we are committed to working with those who have often had exceptionally negative experiences in their previous education, usually for reasons outside their control.
The 2022 Ofsted Inspection
When we got the call in February 2022, whilst we were confident our provision was of good quality and in a safe and supportive environment, Ofsted measures have sometimes failed to look at ‘distance travelled’ for our learners, focussing too heavily on the national benchmark upheld in mainstream education.
But the Ofsted inspection team did, in fact fully understand the experiences of our college learners. They understood that this is the very first qualification they have ever achieved for many – that some need somewhere safe and supportive to enable them to believe in themselves enough to apply themselves to learning and build their future. Ofsted saw the benefits of our one-to-one support and that the vast majority of learners gain a meaningful qualification with us.
They saw that our apprentices create value for local employers, that they progress promptly and that our trainers stretch and challenge them throughout their programmes.
So, this time around, when the Lead Inspector updated us on the positive result for every inspection criterion, I couldn’t tell my team quick enough. Through a tough couple of years, the result is a testimony to our students and apprentices, our parents and carers, and the employers committed to giving our young people real opportunities in life.
Chris Stoker-Jones, Director of Vocational Training, Catch22