I’ve often felt that Ofsted, the government body responsible for assessing quality in UK schools and Further Education, is perceived by its customers in a similar way to the Inland Revenue. We may not like them but we know they’re necessary and we’re happy as long as they keep away from us.
But following the appointment of a new and more vocal Chief Inspector, the organisation has had more than its fair share of criticism. Headteachers have talked about ‘bullying tactics’ and the government now appears to be pondering a U-turn on its proposals for unannounced inspections.
In the corporate sector where company Apprenticeship and other government funded programmes are also subject to Ofsted inspection, there is a feeling that inspectors (most of whom are ex-school teachers) have little understanding of the commercial world and of the technological advances that are driving learning. So it was no surprise during a recent review of one of our hugely successful corporate Skills for Life programmes when one of our managers was told by an inspector who was about to spend a day with her learners: ‘I’ll tell you now that I can’t stand elearning!’ Not a good start to the day…
Yet despite the criticisms and concerns, most people accept that a robust system of quality assurance is essential. Both to ensure that government funding is being put to best use and that training providers are continually looking to improve. So what’s wrong with the present system and how can we improve it?
To reach an answer, I believe that we have to start with the classic four stage model of training evaluation:
- Stage 1 – Assess the learner’s initial thoughts about the training programme. That’s fairly easy to do and “Happy Sheets” have been the staple fare of training providers for many years. However, whilst they may provide a warm fuzzy feeling (and the occasional shock) for the trainer, they are of little value in assessing the real impact (if any) of the training programme.
- Stage 2 – Evaluate whether the learner has gained any knowledge. Again, it’s not rocket science and there are many tried and tested methods – exams, projects, diaries etc.
So far so good, but now it starts to get more complicated because Stages 3 and 4 evaluate whether the learner’s behaviour has changed as a result of the training (are they doing things differently, acting more effectively?) and whether their organisation benefits as a result. These are longer-term changes and far more difficult to assess, but ultimately they are the purpose of any training programme.
My argument is that whilst Ofsted may be very good at evaluating Stages 1 and 2 of the training process, in the corporate world they are simply not attempting to assess the longer-term impact of training on behavioural change and company performance. As such, their inspection ratings are inherently flawed and providers are left frustrated and disillusioned. ‘They just don’t get it’ is a phrase I have heard far too often.
So if Ofsted is going to evaluate the growing number of embedded corporate Apprenticeship programmes, then I believe they have to change their approach. The ‘Tick Box’ mentality associated with Levels 1 and 2 assessment will need to morph into a more comprehensive and robust procedure if we are going to effectively assess whether government funded programmes are genuinely resulting in skill development for learners and improved performance for the companies who employ them.