Louise Doyle, Director, MESMA

IMPROVING quality is a critical step on the (seemingly endless) road to nirvana for FE college leaders, says Louise Doyle, director at quality assurance specialists Mesma, who considers how to produce an effective plan.

Like many things, preparation is critical when writing an improvement plan. It’s also important to remember to keep things simple, clear and precise to a deliver a successful roll out of your plan. If the printout is as thick as a doorstop, or you have a spreadsheet with so many columns you can’t see the beginning and end on one screen, the whole thing becomes a pain to oversee.

Also, draw on the experience of work colleagues, who will ensure your approach is inclusive from the outset - their expertise and knowledge will be invaluable in formulating and answering key questions and addressing some fundamentals. It helps to ensure that there is ownership of the plan by more people than just the senior leadership team.

What does Ofsted say about the matter? Self-assessment and improvement planning is covered under ‘Effective Leadership and Management’ in the CIF, which says to…‘evaluate the quality of the provision and outcomes through robust self-assessment, taking account of users’ views, and use the findings to develop capacity for sustainable improvement’. But it’s not a prescriptive approach, instead laying out a framework in which it’s expected to include a SAR that is accurate and a plan that brings about improvement where it is needed or desired. So, how do you go about writing an effective quality improvement plan?

  • Clarity and definition

It might seem obvious but when you’re knee deep in the detail, the relationship between the SAR and improvement plan can lack clarity. The SAR provides the baseline from which to improve i.e. this is where we are now and this is how we know that. The improvement plan builds on this by stating where we need to get to and how we’ll know we’re making progress and, eventually, know when the destination has been reached. Sounds simple, but when this isn’t gelling as much as it ought to, you can expect Ofsted to jump on it during an inspection…‘the self-assessment report is inaccurate. It has underestimated the impact of weaknesses in teaching, learning and assessment for apprentices. Consequently, leaders and managers have not set effective actions for improvement.’

  • Measurable actions

It can be unclear sometimes what the measurable impact an activity is designed to have on the learners. If this is the case, hitting the reset button and considering ‘so what?’ can be beneficial in flushing out the desired impact. What drove the action from the SAR? Is it to support a move from the framework to the standard? Improve apprenticeship outcomes? Respond to learner feedback? What data would you use to demonstrate achievement of the objective has had a positive impact?

  • The bottom up; top down approach

A SAR needs to be driven by individual teams or departments, rather than written at an organisational level before being cascaded down to junior members of the team. When writing the improvement plan, it makes sense to do the opposite - identify key strategic themes for improvement and allow departmental teams to populate the specific actions as relevant to them. The rationale for this is to avoid improvement plans becoming overly tactical and while such actions may be necessarily operationally, you are looking for people to focus attention where the impact will be most felt. An Ofsted report from July 2017 states: ‘Leaders and managers have implemented well thought-out improvement strategies, which they have applied rigorously to rapidly improve the quality of the provision’.

  • Keep it short and sweet

The principle of a focused plan remains important. In our experience, the longer and more complex the plan, the harder it is to survive first contact, identify impact and the greater the chance it simply ends up as a paper exercise. It becomes too time consuming to review in detail and becomes a job in its own right to update. This links to the previous point: what organisational priorities need to be identified via the self-assessment process? What activities - because you don’t have time to do them all - will have the greatest impact on delivering meaningful change?

  • Who’s accountable?

It can be too easy to allocate a whole department or multiple people specific actions. So avoid this and generate clarity by assigning individuals against improvement plan themes and activities. This will help to avoid tasks falling between the cracks as well as ensure a clear link between organisational improvement and individual performance objectives and targets - the proverbial golden thread.

When improvement planning is done well, we see judgments like this in an inspection report: ‘Action planning for improvement has been very effective. Staff at all levels take responsibility for ensuring that they carry out improvements promptly and that learners benefit from the impact of these actions. The self-assessment report correctly identifies almost all of the provider’s strengths and areas for improvement. As a consequence, leaders’ self-assessment judgments for all aspects of provision matched those given by inspectors.’

It’s clear that brevity, probity and clarity are all key in producing an effective quality improvement plan. Consider also that when you are inspected, the Ofsted team only have a short time to assess and review you; so a simpler more holistic approach can pay dividends when it comes to effective evaluation and improvement planning.

Louise Doyle, director at quality assurance specialists Mesma

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