EQR – External Quality Review – is celebrating its 25th year in 2017-18 and is now the largest peer review scheme in the post-16 education sector, combining a voluntary participation and cooperation model with a rigorous quality assurance methodology to ensure consistency across its reviews.

The scheme was established in 1993 as the then ten sixth form colleges in Hampshire – now operating as newly-incorporated independent institutions - sought ways of maintaining the spirit of sharing good practice engendered by the local education authority.

From those early pioneering days – an initial pilot, led by ex HMIs Brian Furniss and Sandra Nicholls, ran during the 1993-94 academic year – the scheme has grown significantly and now boasts 26 sixth form and general further education colleges as members.

Geographically the members are spread across the south of England from Bristol in the west to Bromley in the east and in 2016-17 the scheme administered around 70 peer reviews in colleges, using more than 100 reviewers, each one a practising professional trained by the scheme itself.

During that time, EQR has successfully negotiated the fine line between being true to its supportive, peer review philosophy, while following the prevailing OFSTED inspection framework. Some of the scheme’s advisers have experience of inspecting colleges and the scheme regularly updates its review criteria to adapt to the current needs of colleges.

Scheme Manager Di Lloyd, a former Principal of St Vincent Sixth Form College in Gosport, one of the pilot group a quarter of a century ago, explains: “At the time I was the newly-appointed Quality Manager at St Vincent and EQR was, for me, an exciting opportunity to use the skills of teachers across the sector to ensure we all could improve.

“Back in the 1990s the emphasis was very much on subject-based reviews, reflecting the inspection framework of the period.

“Over time the emphasis has shifted and now we are seeing a demand for cross-college reviews, that is to say areas of activity without a subject focus. Examples of requests in the past couple of years are: embedding literacy & numeracy, employability and effective assessment. This is in line with Government priorities and the impact these have on colleges.

“Between us, using the experienced professionals who are grappling with these issues themselves daily, colleges can share good practice and hopefully drive up standards.

“EQR has three fundamental aims, namely to give teachers the opportunity to share ideas and expertise, assist colleges in improving quality and provide structured external assessment of areas of work.

“There are other peer quality review schemes out there, but it is the rigour of EQR which sets it apart and that is down to our investment in training both reviewers and external advisers. Advisors support reviews and ensure a consistency of outcome. The way the scheme is organised is key to that.”

The scheme is overseen by a steering group, comprising 11 senior and quality managers from member colleges. The group sets the strategic priorities for EQR at its termly meetings.

On a day-to-day basis it is Di’s job to organise the reviews, negotiating with nominated college coordinators and the pool of trained reviewers to find mutually convenient dates in the packed academic year diary.

“It’s a job that sometimes has its challenges as you can imagine! After all, the teachers doing the reviews are all doing this voluntarily,” said Di, “but with goodwill on all sides we are usually able to find a way to meet college needs.

“The key to a successful review is to have a college EQR coordinator who understands the process and is committed to quality improvement. They will then ensure staff involved in the reviews are well-briefed and understand the non-threatening approach of EQR.

“They can also ensure senior managers understand the philosophy of the scheme. It is here to help college improve: no more, no less.

However, Di is at pains to point out it’s not just colleges which benefit from the experience.

“Reviewers also gain a huge amount from conducting the reviews, both in terms of their own professional development, as well as being inspired to transfer good practice observed elsewhere to their own colleges,” she explained.

At the heart of the professional development is the other arm of Di’s role, which is to organise a comprehensive training programme every summer to ensure the scheme has the right number of reviewers with the appropriate area specialisms to meet the needs of colleges for the coming academic year.

The programme also routinely invites member colleges to identify teachers to participate in two days of intensive training on how to observe lessons and give feedback. For many this has been the first step on the management path.

“Over the years our feedback tells us teachers regard EQR training, which includes the key tools of planning a review, analysing data, observing teachers, conducting focus group meetings and ultimately writing and presenting a detailed report, as being among the best CPD around.

“The EQR advisers who deliver the training are skilled practitioners themselves, which gives the training its credibility,” added Di.

So what is the future for EQR? Di is confident the scheme will go from strength to strength.

“With college budgets increasingly under pressure, we have to ensure EQR remains excellent value for money. To do that the scheme needs to ensure it keeps abreast of the constantly changing post-16 landscape.

“We have done that successfully for the past 25 years and the scheme is constantly refreshing itself with new member colleges and teachers and managers who are committed to making the scheme work effectively.

“Considering the scheme’s sixth form college roots, what has been particularly pleasing is how the scheme has been embraced by GFE colleges. Some of the biggest and most successful GFEs in the region are members and will give EQR its fair share of credit for having paved the way for that success.

“In the end it is all about the quality of experience for young people in our colleges, whether that’s teaching and learning or pastoral support. That’s what drives everyone involved with EQR.

“Over 25 years we have undoubtedly made a positive difference in that regard and everyone involved in the scheme should be immensely proud of that.”

Colin Farmery

EQR – What teachers and colleges say

A key aspect of EQR is the fact it reviews are undertaken by teachers to help other teachers improve. Taken from actual review feedback, current practitioners explain why EQR is important to them and their colleges.

EQR Reviewers

'This is a fantastic process to be able to be a part of. I thoroughly enjoyed the EQR, as I did last time, and see it as an excellent opportunity for self and departmental development on all sides.' Sally Udeen - Head of Biology, Brighton, Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College

'EQR was another really helpful developmental experience; fantastic way to understand the wider context of our sector. It is a brilliant scheme which is so well administered and looked after.' Tristan Arnison - Head of Faculty, The Henley College

'The review activities allowed us to get a real grasp of the college their issues, or otherwise, and to work together as a team to propose some changes that, if taken forward, should support the college in driving up results.' Vicki Haig - Head of Teaching, Learning & Assessment, St Brendan's Sixth Form College, Bristol

‘The EQR process has been one of the most useful CPD activities I have ever done - I learnt so much!  It is not until you have completed a review that you really understand the value of the EQR process.’ Jill Thomson, Head of Level 2 Business and ILT Coordinator , Peter Symonds College, Winchester

College EQR Coordinators

'All staff and students who were involved in the review commented on the positivity and enthusiasm of both reviewers. Their manner was universally praised, and they embodied the peer review ethos of EQR at all times – never drifting in to inspectoral mode.' Tim Chamberlain - Head of Faculty, Brighton, Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College

'The meetings with staff were critical in working through some of the challenges of the area and allowed teachers to put forward where they are on their own journey in making improvements. The additional benefit of this meeting was that teachers felt appreciated and listened to and included in the overall process.' Jo Folwell - Quality, Innovation & Development Manager, Sussex Downs College

'The reviewers carried out the review entirely in the spirit of EQR and they left us with some extremely useful insights. The reviewers fed back in a clear, professional and supportive way. They handled the challenging comments and questions in the team meeting well and engaged extremely well in the SLT discussions. The lead reviewer sent the final report very speedily and this entirely matched the oral feedback.' Jill Arnold - Deputy Principal, Varndean College, Brighton

'This review was everything that we feel EQR should be. A true exchange of ideas and approaches between subject specialists and a great example of peer review.' Teresa Langford - Quality Manager, London South East Colleges.

Colin Farmery is a freelance photo-journalist who has worked for more than 20 years in the post-16 education sector. He is currently head of safeguarding & inclusion at Portsmouth FC. Words and pictures © 2018 Colin Farmery / fcmedia.eu / cocoFOTO.eu

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