Improving quality is a critical step on the (seemingly endless) road to nirvana for training provider leaders. But what does it take to produce an effective plan to carry this out?
Like many things, preparation is critical when writing an improvement plan. So is remembering to keep things simple, clear and precise when delivering a successful roll out.
If the printout is as thick as a doorstop, or you have a spreadsheet with so many columns you can’t see the beginning and end on one screen, the whole thing becomes a pain to oversee.
Drawing on the experience of work colleagues will ensure your approach is inclusive from the outset - their expertise and knowledge will be invaluable in formulating and answering key questions and addressing fundamentals. This approach also helps to ensure that more people than just the senior leadership team are taking ownership of the plan.
What does Ofsted say about the matter? Self-assessment and improvement planning is covered under ‘Effective Leadership and Management’ in the Common Inspection Framework, which says to: “evaluate the quality of the provision and outcomes through robust self-assessment, taking account of users’ views, and use the findings to develop capacity for sustainable improvement”.
But this is not a prescriptive approach; instead it lays out a basic framework that should include a self-assessment report (SAR) that is accurate and a plan that brings about improvement where it is needed or desired.
So, how exactly do you go about writing an effective quality improvement plan?
1) Clarity and definition
It might seem obvious but when you’re knee deep in the detail, the relationship between the self-assessment report and improvement plan can lack clarity. The SAR should provide the baseline from which to improve; it should show where you are now and how you know that to be the case.
The improvement plan builds on this by stating where we need to get to and how we’ll know we’re making progress and, eventually, know when the destination has been reached.
Sounds simple, but when this isn’t gelling as much as it ought to, you can expect Ofsted to jump on it during an inspection and respond with something like: ‘the self-assessment report is inaccurate. It has underestimated the impact of weaknesses in teaching, learning and assessment for apprentices. Consequently, leaders and managers have not set effective actions for improvement.’
2) Measurable actions
It can be unclear sometimes what measurable impact an activity is designed to have on learners. If this is the case, hitting the reset button and considering ‘so what?’ can be beneficial in flushing out the desired impact.
What drove the action from the SAR? Is it to support a move from the framework to the standard? Improve apprenticeship outcomes? Respond to learner feedback? What data would you use to demonstrate achievement of the objective has had a positive impact?
3) The bottom-up, top-down approach
A self-assessment report needs to be driven by individual teams or departments, rather than written at an organisational level before being cascaded down to junior members of the team.
When writing the improvement plan, it makes sense to do the opposite: identify key strategic themes for improvement and allow departmental teams to populate the specific actions as relevant to them.
The rationale for this is to avoid improvement plans becoming overly tactical, and while such actions may be necessarily operational, you are looking for people to focus attention where the impact will be most felt.
An Ofsted report from July 2017 states: ‘Leaders and managers have implemented well thought-out improvement strategies, which they have applied rigorously to rapidly improve the quality of the provision’.
4) Keep it short and sweet
The principle of a focused plan remains important. In our experience, the longer and more complex the plan, the harder it is to survive first contact and identify impact, and the greater the chance it simply ends up as a paper exercise.
It becomes too time consuming to review in detail and becomes a job in its own right to update. This links to the previous point: what organisational priorities need to be identified via the self-assessment process? What activities – because you don’t have time to do them all – will have the greatest impact on delivering meaningful change?
5) Who’s accountable?
It can be easy to allocate a whole department or multiple people to specific actions. Try to avoid this and generate clarity by assigning individuals to improvement plan themes and activities. This will help to avoid tasks falling between the cracks as well as ensure a clear link between organisational improvement and individual performance objectives and targets – the proverbial golden thread.
When improvement planning is done well, we see judgments like this in an inspection report: ‘Action planning for improvement has been very effective. Staff at all levels take responsibility for ensuring that they carry out improvements promptly and that learners benefit from the impact of these actions. The self-assessment report correctly identifies almost all of the provider’s strengths and areas for improvement. As a consequence, leaders’ self-assessment judgments for all aspects of provision matched those given by inspectors.’
It’s clear that brevity, probity and clarity are all key in producing an effective quality improvement plan. Consider also that when you are inspected, the Ofsted team only have a short time to assess and review you; so a simpler more holistic approach can pay dividends when it comes to effective evaluation and improvement planning.
About Louise Doyle
Louise Doyle is a further education consultant and director of quality assurance experts Mesma. She has an extensive career in the education and training sector, which includes senior management and leadership positions at Sunderland College where she was director of business services. She is also a director at Bright Blue Training & Advisory and a senior associate at Strategic Development Network. She has also been a chair of the Board of Governors at her local primary school, an associate advisor at KPMG Advisory and held senior customer service and management roles at several leading corporate companies.