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Improvement Journey Planning - Strategic decision making in Further Education & Skills

Updated: Mar 9, 2021



Providing an annual reflection on historical performance to improve and inform performance management and planning, via a “quality cycle” no longer works. It is too slow, unresponsive, out of date and a reflection of historical sector practices that have no impact and are no longer relevant.


Real strategic growth in the sector has been hampered by a decade of mergers, area-based reviews and cuts to funding. Out of date working practices prevail, typified by our reactionary approach to the COVID-19 crisis, declining financial health and challenges to adapt and fully embed the new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (EIF), notably especially with the three I’s (Intention, Implementation and Impact).

Data is no longer valid, traditional quality and performance management activities no longer create impact. As a sector we are not agile enough to respond to emerging challenges and risks. We have a reactionary culture, based on out-of-date leadership practices and an inability to embrace change and real strategic decision making.

If we take a ‘traditional’ annual quality cycle and the associated activities as an example. An end of year organisational review via self-assessment reports (SARs) and subsequent quality improvement plans (QIP's), are an artificial historical snapshot that are no longer valid. They are often based on artificial subjective measuring (lesson observations & learning walks), and compiled by senior leaders via second or third hand reports. On some occasions they are supported by learner voice activities.


Based on this approach, we highlight artificial strengths and superficial weaknesses. We then plan provision, develop financial forecasts, do some more measuring, and come up with ideas to improve our data to at least national averages. At a curriculum level, we support our learners to improve their performance and attendance through disciplinaries and we hold middle managers and teaching staff to account for owning and improving their now meaningless out of date data.


The multiple challenges and crises the sector has faced over the past 14 months, coupled with the revolution to the FE landscape, initiated by the white paper, requires us to find new strategic ways of working. These will enable us to be agile, responsive and improve efficiencies.


These new methods need to measure the ‘real’ impact of what we do and move away from old habits based on our data obsession, over reliance and making subjective top-down judgements on quality, that are often shaped by organisational bias, opinion, loyalty, blame, threat perception created by change and underperformance. Often passed down the food-chain of the organisation to front line staff and teachers, who suffer a magnification of workload.


As a sector, we are strong at reacting to new challenges and developing new initiatives in response. However, they tend to be tested out and then immediately measured on unsuspecting staff, resulting in additional stress, adding to an overburdened workload, creating a lack of buy in and further under-performance.


However, it is not all gloom and doom! Some new ideas that are currently in development include:


- Sector external benchmarking – a new approach in development, which compares performance by sector, using a new evidence base.


- Growth and evolution of new sector quality practices and systems for live reporting.


- Embracing of the ‘Journey’ model of improvement, which contextualises the key milestones and the route ahead,


- A focus on improving efficiencies, productivity, value for money, measured via real impact.


- Revolutionising the learner voice as rich evidence base to inform strategic evidence-based decision making.


- A system to normalise and improve the consistency of performance, costs and services across multiple sites of newly merged colleges.

- Cost to impact ratio assessment to improve efficiency and financial health.


- New quality metrics focussed on new approach to evaluate impact and improve employer engagement, staff utilisation and cost benefit impact analysis to improve the quality of governance, reference-ability and performance improvement journey planning.


- A distinct move away from historical reflective reviews, to live assessment and performance reviews, to inform live evidence based strategic decision making.


- Organisational culture shifts, through the use of strategic eveidence-based decision making toolkits, as a change management tool; abandoning reactionary approaches and replacing them with resilience, live risk-management and better decision-making capacity, based on using Artifical Intelligence (AI) to inform decision making process.


- Learning new ways of strategic working from other countries that have done the work and are further along the journey. The work from New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission (covers all FES sectors) on strategic performance improvement benchmarking tools, which is powerful enough to influence Government education funding, decision and policy making. The Northern Irish value you for money assessment tool, which provides colleges with real-time contextualised financial performance based on college leader’s decision making or adjustments created by sector challenges.


- A distinct move away from professional 'Sector' specialists’ services, who reinforce out of date working practices, financially drain the sector, without putting anything back in.


- A new internal accountability measure, which assesses the impact of senior leaders in delivering improvements and leading the improvement journey (cue a huge smile by teaching and middle managers! (What is good for the goose!).



Embrace change, experiment, learn and grow, by investing in new strategic ways of working. It will quickly pay for itself, resulting in greater ownership of the improvement journey narrative, stronger financial health and will create a new rich evidence base to inform agile, evidence based strategic decision making, resulting in enhanced resilience, risk management, future planning and proofing, for your organisation and the sector.


We desperately need to modernise our approaches to leadership, quality and performance review in the FESs sector. COVID-19 and the constant fluctuations in our FES ecosystem, has shown we can respond, but our traditional reactionary ways of working are no longer effective and no longer address the new criteria within the Inspection Framework (EIF). I think that we are all struggling to find ways to successfully demonstrate and provide a clear narrative of the improvement journey against the three I’s.


Financial health is suffering and the sectors capacity to respond to changes needs to improve. Creating new tools, ways of working is an exciting opportunity that we all must embrace to successfully navigate our brave new world, while owning the narrative and driving the improvement journey.


Anthony Pike … has over 22 years Further Education and Skills sector experience….. if you are interested in working together to drive change and strategic growth in the sector, by the sector and for the sector, please do not hesitate to contact me .


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