1. What are the main areas of concern about quality assurance?

Louise Doyle

The obvious one that comes up over and over again is about time. How do we have the time to do quality assurance?

For me, it’s always about context. If you’re a smaller independent training provider, you’re wearing multiple hats and you’re not in a quality role per se, you’ve got every role in the company as opposed to a large college which comes with different challenges, then ultimately it will come back to time. The advice is always about not trying to build a bloated quality assurance cycle where you’re chucking everything at it, the kitchen sink, the dining table, everything’s going in. Instead, it’s about knowing what are the activities that you know will have the most impact on the quality of our performance and getting that bit right.

So that’s the first thing. The other is the how-to. We have a lot of conversations about what good self-assessment reporting looks like. You know my hobby horse around helping people not to feel like they have to do that because the regulator says, but doing it because it’s a really valuable exercise to be a great provider. The fact that that then helps you and builds confidence during inspection is great, but it should never be the other way around.

So it’s the how-to. How do we practically do it? How do we find the resource to make it work? Those are probably the two things that come up.

2. Do issues around equality, diversity and inclusion come up often in quality assurance?

Louise Doyle

They come up all the time. I’ll give you a kind of rundown of where and when it comes up, and I’m going to use the Ofsted framework language to give you some examples of this.

It comes up under that personal development box. A lot of my team, when they’re not with us, are additional inspectors for Ofsted. So I ask them quite often what’s the biggest piece of advice that you would give people, and we do our very best to share as much as we can within the sector and to help us all to keep growing because we love this sector; we belong to it and have been in it for many years.

What sometimes can come across at the moment, even if not intended, is a tokenistic view of equality, diversity and inclusion. That manifests itself when our team does some quality review activity that always includes us speaking to apprentices or learners. The apprentice, for example, might say ‘ah yes, I remember doing that module. I did it in induction’ and another one might say the same, but actually it’s the embedding of that.

So how does that impact you in the workplace? How have you used that to inform your workplace who perhaps isn’t as strong on EDI? Have you actually used what you’ve learned in order to improve their practice?

There are some amazing examples where learners have done that, so it’s the movement from it feeling overly tokenistic and ‘that module I did at the beginning of the programme’ to how it is embedded all the way through.

I saw a great example with an engineering provider a couple of weeks ago. They had, by a different name, given their own apprentices and students thematic reviews to do around EDI. They would periodically place a problem in front of their learners to explore within their own workplace. So it is very much embedded and it came through really strongly with apprentices, so that’s the first one.

In that personal development box, how do we lift it off the page into something that is embedded all the way throughout the programme?

The second one is Ofsted language, and how personal development is feeding into the intent of your curriculum.

Right at the beginning when you’re thinking through the programme structure, you’re already considering how personal development plays a part in that, so you’ve got a piece there. And of course the big one, which Louise touched on in the way the framework is structured, is about the quality of education around implementation and impact. How do we show that all learners have the same opportunity to be successful? How do we make sure that those learners like my daughter don’t find themselves in the space where actually, even though they’re getting to the same level, what that’s taking them to get there is even more.

That takes a lot to be able to work those things out and figure where we’re working, where we’re not, so it’s EDI in the implementation and impact phase for all learners to be given the same opportunity and allow them to be equally successful.

Louise Karwowski

We also need to consider the load on people who work with those learners, tutor managers, and senior leadership teams need to be aware of this as well, because as we’re pushing the message, that learners need to be identified, this evidently is going to increase the number of learners with difficulties that tutors are working with. So tutor managers need to be on top of this to make sure that their tutors aren’t being overloaded, that caseloads are balanced and the time is available to spend with those learners who need it.

Louise Doyle

That’s such a good point there actually. I see that with our academies. Because of the pandemic, we’re seeing an increase in children, young people and adults with mental health issues that are coming through, which are having an impact on their ability to learn and be successful. It then creates another resource tension about how we manage that successfully.

Even the services around us that are designed to do those things are struggling at the moment as well. So it’s such a great point around not losing sight of that. With the framework structure, the identification is one thing, but that sometimes creates a balloon in the numbers and we need to do something in order to make sure those learners are supported.

3. Any thoughts on the current recruitment issue in the education sector?

Louise Doyle

I don’t know about you guys but I don’t speak to many sectors at the moment that haven’t got a recruitment issue.

So whether you’re software houses or training providers, or you happen to be hoteliers, the issue is the same one: Have we got the staff that we need, and can we get those staff when we need them? Therefore it’s putting that same pressure on, so for me, that’s going to be the big “watch space” for this year. How do we have the strategies in place to make sure that we have high-quality people who are able to do it?

I hope that a positive outcome of that is that we are more considerate about how we might look at neurodiversity and our recruitment strategies. How do we turn that same lens on ourselves that we turn on the people that we work with? I mean ‘we’, that’s not a royal ‘we’, it’s about my business as much as it is anyone in the audience to think about the pool of talent that we need to get access to, and whether or not the things that we need to have in place, as employers, are there to ensure that.

Everyone deserves the same opportunity to not just apply but also to thrive as well. So I think we’re going to have a tricky year with that. We certainly feel it with our business at the moment. Maybe one of the positives is that it allows us the space to think about our recruitment strategies more carefully and how we can support employees of all neuro-identities.

4. Do you have any advice for someone having trouble with their QA processes?

Louise Doyle

It depends on what kind of trouble it is.

There are lots of answers to the question, but if I had to give a really simple answer around it, it would come back to that stripping it back. What would have the most impact?

So the first thing that I would always do is to have that self-assessment process, however painful it can be, however much sometimes it can do your head in and take up lots of time. It’s an opportunity to really understand where your strengths and weaknesses are at this point in time and how your leadership team own those strengths and weaknesses. And it will allow you to create your own benchmark.

Where is it that we need to start and think about where we can improve, and that in itself will then give you the opportunity to know the issues that you need to work on. Then you can ask yourself ‘if we could only do one quality assurance, one quality method, whether it’s observation, thematic reviews, surveys, which of those would have the most impact on that issue?’ and you only do that one. That’s it; don’t do anything else. Don’t try and be over clever, just keep it right back down to the basics, but don’t lose yourself in the assessment process because that’s the thing that will help to give you your benchmark to springboard onto the other things as well.

5. How does QA work with shorter programmes, for example, not apprenticeships?

Louise Doyle

It’s a really great question because in principle, it’s exactly the same. But of course, when you’re delivering on a shorter programme, you’ve got less time to be able to go through all of those different dimensions, so, again, it’s about prioritisation. Based on your learners, which of those things, in your context, do you know will have the most impact? You will be a much better gauge than we would be about knowing which of the other priority things to do.

When I first started talking about the framework with Mark and Louise at Cognassist, the intention was very much that although it started with apprenticeships, it didn’t end with apprenticeships. And the principles would be exactly the same, but again, it’s about doing the stuff that you know will have the most difference.

Louise Karwowski

The idea behind this framework is it can be adapted to any programme, long or short. However, as Louise said, if you have a short programme, it’s even more important that you carry out the identification part of the process ASAP on enrolment. Don’t wait a month, do it as part of your enrolment and induction process, because that is the seed that will then go into success for that learner. Address this framework, and as we said, strip it back, take out the bits you need, create a policy out of it and then it will evolve.

6. Any tips for change management to embed new quality assurance processes in an organisation?

Louise Doyle

I started my career in corporate life. I worked for British Airways and then on to Orange, I managed contact centres but actually then ended up in a change management role. It doesn’t matter what type of organisation you’re in, the principles of change management stick.

I’ll go into theory mode just for a moment. I highly recommend having a look, if you don’t know it, at the JP Kotter Change Management Framework. It’s not perfect, but it’s a theory, so you then have to put it into context, but there are some things within it that I think are really true and are absolutely the key.

The first one is that Kotter, in his 8 step process for change starts out with that key question that you’ve got to define the problem first and you’ve got to bring people with you on what the problem is. When we try to bring change into our organisations, even if it’s about changing a quality process, what we do is try to get people to be evangelical about a future state. This is where we need to be. This is what we need to get excited about and I can get excited about your shiny new quality assurance cycle, but I’m not going to do anything different to what I do today unless you give me enough reason to change.

The Kotter language is ‘what’s the reason for change?’. So find your reason for change first, a bit like the thematic review we were talking about, explore the problem, get the issue right before you start defining the glossy future. If you do that, then people will love what you’re about, but they won’t go with you on the journey because the status quo is so much easier to stick with when we’ve all got so much frying our brains. That’s it. Find your reason for change but get people bought into it, and then build your shiny future of ‘where do we want to get to?’.

The other one I’d highly recommend having a look at if you are interested in this space is the ADKAR process. It’s a different way of looking at Kotter. The principles are the same, but it’s quite a nice way of looking at how you can manage change.

7. Which stage is the most important in the Quality Assurance Framework?

Louise Karwowski

Every single stage is important. Every single one is a pillar to support this learner journey and they all feed into one another with identification being at the start. Paul Joyce pulled up a slide at the AELP conference which explained what outstanding provision looks like in Ofsted’s eyes. Every single point on that slide feeds into this framework that we’re building and he particularly stipulated that outstanding provision promptly identifies and provides support for LDD.

Now, this shouldn’t be freaking people out. This shouldn’t be saying ‘how are we going to do this as extra to our processes’. This is part of your process. This isn’t an afterthought, it’s not a tick box exercise. This needs to be developed as part of the conversation and usual process of every provider.

Louise Doyle

If you’re thinking about looking at what’s important, it’s less about stripping out one of the pillars and more about doing less activity within each pillar in accordance with what can be manageable.

8. How frequently should providers be assessing the quality of their learner support provision?

Louise Doyle

There’s something we often say over in the Mesma space: the thing that should be scrutinised the most in a quality assurance cycle is the quality assurance cycle itself so I really love the question.

How do you know your quality assurance cycle works?

That, for me, is always about stripping out the stuff that ends up making you feel like you’re just being busy fools. I’ll give you a really simple example of that: we might meet a provider who wants to use the software but also wants to work with us because they undertake observations of all of their trainers three times a year. So my first question would be why? Why have you made that decision that you need to do that three times a year with every single one of the trainers? There might be a perfectly good reason for that, but that’s the question that needs to be asked. Because is that having an impact on the quality of the provision?

The same applies when we look at people’s thematic review cycle and they’ve got loads of them in. It comes back to that resource implication again. What you never want is your quality assurance cycle becoming a bind: you’ve put so much stuff in it to try and get it right that then you can’t get into the depth, which is the exact thing that we’re trying to encourage you to do.

So my advice would be and, and it’s very much in the Education Inspection Framework as well, that when you’re doing your self-assessment report and you’re looking at that leadership and management strand and the governance, that’s where it is. Is your quality assurance cycle doing the job that it needs to do? Use that annual reflection process to look back and not just ask if you’re doing loads of quality assurance, but actually which of them are having the most impact. Stop doing the stuff that isn’t; move on from it. That can feel a bit scary sometimes because you feel like there are lots of things that you should do, but doing less is sometimes much better.

With the LDD framework, what you might want to do is start off by saying you’ll do it once, but if through your self-assessment process you’ve identified this as an area for improvement for you, then you might want to do it mid-year as well. We’re going to come back and go through the process again and actually have a subset of an action plan that someone owns and is accountable for that’s very specific to LDD. If everything is going really well then just pull it in once a year with your self-assessment process.

So don’t standardise it to the point where it becomes ‘we must comply, we have said we’re going to do it once a year, twice a year, three times a year.’ Do it in a way that has the most impact for you.

Interested in more content around Equality and Quality? Check out the second panel’s Q&A where Dr. Louise Karwowski was joined by Kelly Townend, WYLP, Marina Gaze, former Deputy Director of FE&Skills and Beej Kaczmarczyk, Learning Curve Group.