From education to employment

Merger Would Ignore Individuality of Work – Based Learning, Says Association of Learning

On the 29th of July, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) announced a proposal to merge the two bodies responsible for inspections, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI).

This would see the ALI move within the remit of Ofsted, a move which the Government anticipate will culminate in 2007 with the creation of a single agency. Whilst at present this is a consultation document rather than policy set in stone, it is a clear indication that the Government are looking to back their statement of intent to create one inspectorate with the deed of union. Graham Hoyle, the Chief Executive of Association of Learning Providers, spoke to FE News today about his fears for the future should this take place.

An Exercise in Bureaucracy

Sitting in the foyer of the elegant Jolly St Ermine’s Hotel, Mr Hoyle began by accepting that there were two sides to the debate regarding the proposed merger. He stated that there was a “bureaucratic benefit” to the merger, as it would serve to simplify the administrative side to inspections were everything to be coalesced under a single roof. He stated that there would be a “level of rationalisation” that could be called the primary benefit.

For Mr. Hoyle, and for the inspectors within the ALI, it is more a question of room allocation underneath the roof. As those readers who have been reading some of the comments from Ofsted inspectors, they freely admit that their inspection guidelines are often not tailored to suit the individual demands of the areas they inspect in. Founded with a strong background in school inspection, it is often said that they lack the flexibility of approach needed to assess the FE Colleges that currently fall within their remit.

The Gaps in the Sector

If this is the problem within the institutional education sector, then it will be still greater when applied to the work based learning sector of the ALI. As Mr. Hoyle put it: “The concept, the learning process [of work based learning] through to competence assessment is different from everything else.” After the initial teething troubles of the ALI (during which time, as Mr. Hoyle freely admits, there were a number of complaints from providers) the providers of work based learning now have confidence in the inspectors.

This confidence has been hard won, but is now widespread and comes from providers recognising inspectors” training within the sectors for which they are responsible and their understanding of the individual demands met by providers. Far from complaints, Mr. Hoyle says, the ALI is now recognised as a “value ““ adding exercise”.

As has been mentioned before, Ofsted originally had a remit for schools inspection, and currently covers FE colleges as well. And whilst the gap from schools to the FE colleges is large, Mr. Hoyle described the gap between these and work based learning as “a million miles”.

Concerning Quality

Mr. Hoyle stressed that should the merger take place, the ALI would need to be allowed to set its own agenda for inspection criteria. The corporate bringing together of two disparate sections of education under one inspectorate “must maintain ALI specialisation”, said Mr. Hoyle. It would seem that the merger would not be in the interest of those who use the service provided, which Mr. Hoyle mentioned in an article from December 2004 when he said: “The good times have invariably been associated with the policymakers remembering that it is customers – learners and employers – who should come first.”

In the current climate of concern regarding skills levels and retraining, Mr. Hoyle recognises that guaranteeing the quality of the provision provided is “the big game in town”. However, he pointed out that there is a distinction between work based learning providers on the one hand, and schools and FE colleges on the other. A work based learning provider, unlike an FE college, has no guarantee that they will get a new contract on the back of an unsatisfactory inspection report.

As such, whilst Mr. Hoyle has been controlled in his response to the proposal, those he represents in the sector are extremely concerned at the prospect of an inappropriate inspection regime costing them their livelihood through no fault of their own. The message from Mr. Hoyle is clear: for the work based learning sector even more than the rest of the education sector, what inspectors say counts. As such, a “one size fits all” approach is difficult to implement at best, and represents a “risk” in the view of the ALP.

FE News would like to thank Mr. Hoyle for taking the time to talk with us in the midst of his busy schedule, and look forward to further conversations in the future.

Jethro Marsh

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