From education to employment

Lou Doyle – Co-founder and CEO of Mesma; looking at Ofsted through a longer lens.

Lou Doyle – Co-founder and CEO of Mesma takes the delegates of the OneFile conference on a journey, looking at Ofsted through a longer lens.

Mesma offers software solutions and consultancy services to aid organisations with their quality improvement initiatives. They offer guidance, training, and support to educational institutions in areas such as leadership and management and inspection readiness.

Fast moving sector pressures

At OneFile’s conference, Lou took to the stage some of her valuable Ofsted insights. She shared that through their experience, the pressures of being an apprenticeship provider comes with high swings of emotion which can lead to decisions being made without understanding the impact downstream on the quality of provision.

There are constantly headlines about apprenticeship start and completion numbers. Apprenticeship start trends in the last few years have seen that level 2 and 3 apprenticeship starts have dropped. However, there is good news that there has been high growth in the higher apprenticeship levels. This is not a great balance though and there needs to be a focus on increasing the lower level starts.

The most likely impact of this will be pressure on providers’ business development teams. When the number of starts is balanced, the focus is on the right learner on the right programme, but when the balance shifts and the business development team are told need to bring in more L2/L3 for example, it increases the risk that they MIGHT start to put learners on programme that aren’t suitable in order to hit the higher targets. This could result in learners being put onto programmes which are not appropriate which can have an impact downstream on quality and achievements. Never underestimate the role each area can play on quality.

As has been the case with several high-profile providers, if they see a quick growth in numbers which they are not used to, this will simply cause their systems and processes to crack. As numbers grow, question need to be asked about the impact on quality.  How can we grow our provisions whilst mitigating the risk.

Aim to be the best!

The Department for Education has said that the target for achievement rates in apprenticeships is 67% by 2025. This creates a perfect storm that might actually become worse rather than better as there is a pressure of numbers and therefore, we could find that the wrong apprentices are recruited in order to achieve the target.

Overwhelmingly, there was pressure during Covid, and a lot of businesses have found it worse coming out of Covid.  One influencing factor was the high number of redundancies that cause an increase in drop-out rates. Whilst this is difficult to influence, if we put all the blame on external factors such as Covid, then we take our eye off the areas we do have influence over. There are whole areas that we could not have done anything about and were out of our control – but there are areas we CAN influence and control to ensure we have the right people on the right programmes at the right time.

Lou shares how she does not believe 67% is even ambitious enough. 67% will be the average achievement rate – the worst thing we can do is aim for average. We should always aim to be the best. Under the old Common Inspection Framework or the newer Education Inspection Framework, the inspection profile data has remained the same for years.

The ambition should be to shift the profile overall by working collectively together. Only one part of the education system that has a lower profile than apprenticeships, is prison education.

Who is contributing the most to our finish rates?

The grade profile levels out across provider type. For example, universities – which incidentally did a great job in elevating  status the of apprenticeships – at first started their grade profile higher, but this has now levelled out to be more in line with other profiles of providers.

There is always more talk and publicity about the overall grades – however the subgrades are more useful to focus on as they represent a stronger opportunity to shift the needle.

  1. Low volume, high risk – in an establishment where apprenticeship numbers are small in comparison to what the rest of the organisation does i.e., a college or university, you need to ensure the rest of college cares and knows about apprenticeships too. From inspections over the past 12 months, there have been 6 colleges which have received an overall good grade, but require improvement for apprenticeships. Lou believes that there should be a limited overall grade based on your worst provision because it helps to focus the mind.
  • Worst of the subgrades consistently is personal development. Personal development should be exactly in the middle of the curriculum, not pushed to the side. Where can this naturally fit into the curriculum? This really needs to be brought in from the beginning and given focus throughout.

Focus on the learner experience.  

There is a lot that can be gleaned from reading previous providers reports where they have received a ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ rating. They show that if quality assurance is good, then this will be reflected in your inspection. Ask yourself, ‘What is it like to a be an apprentice with this provider?’ – if you can collectively, and consistently answer this HONESTLY, then you should not have any surprises when it comes to your inspection. It is a fantastic reflective question which is quoted in the reports.

This is such an intrinsic question and shouldn’t need an inspector to tell you, as you already know. 

  • How do you make quality assurance work so that you can answer this question confidently across all areas of your provision. 
  • The challenge of a heavily regulated sector is that we sometimes forget what it is all about. In simplistic terms there is an individual interested in a career, we need to check what they know already, onboard them and the employer, and have a programme that develops them to become better and better at that job, then this needs to be put to the test, do they know enough to do the job? 

Employers and apprentices need to have a voice in the curriculum design process. How do we validate that our programmes are fit for purpose before even starting a learner on them? Think about how the apprentice might explain the programme from their point of view, and how does that corroborate back to what you are saying? Not to say ‘’I am really enjoying what I am learning but cannot see how it relates to my job role’’ – how can the ebb and flow of off the job relate to the work-role and how can the apprentice apply it into their work to embed the learning as strongly as possible. 

Apprentices benefit from collaborative relationships between the employer and training provider staff. The best Ofsted inspections see the employer attending regular reviews and providing on-going constructive feedback. Employers can be the champion or the thief of quality in apprenticeships, but providers carry the can. There is no magic wand – it is crucial to spend enough time and energy training the coach (the person who delivers the reviews) in order for them to best work with the employer. It is not enough to say a learner is doing well.

Think about: 

  1. What exactly are they doing well? 
  2. How are they doing it well?  
  3. What are they doing better now than they were before? 

What value does the apprentice or employer put on the tripartite review? If they only view it as a tick box to go through, then it is not being done properly. How does the review impact on the outcome or next steps? It is not a form filling exercise; it should add value to the process. How do we check in that a learner is making progress and what interventions can we put in place if they are not making as much progress as hoped by that stage. 

Quality of Feedback

Across all good or outstanding institutions, a common theme emerges – the paramount importance of high-quality feedback. The report consistently highlights the role of feedback from both the provider and their line manager, as well as the quality of feedback on assessed work. This emphasis on feedback is not arbitrary; it is supported by a wealth of research that showcases its transformative impact on the learning process. If you want to improve the quality, you need to go big time, all the time, on the quality of feedback.

Watch the session here:

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