Quality improvement in the Further Education and Skills (FES) sector is the key driver for operational and strategic focus of all organisations. We are all constantly working hard to improve our Ofsted grading, the student experience, outcomes, financial health, while keeping abreast and integrating new changes in policy, opportunities and focus.
As a scientist, I really enjoy the scientific element of quality improvement, including the analysis of data, trends, patterns, national averages; creating new systems and innovative study programmes linked to local and national skills priorities to maximise funding. Reviewing internal data on the performance of each curriculum area in terms of teaching, learning and assessment, picking out trends and patterns from the learner voice and using this to inform quality improvement. Quite a few organisations have got to the stage where they have great data dashboards, where every single KPI can be accessed at the touch of a button.
But these are just merely 'tools' which we should use as part of the quality improvement journey. More than often, FES organisations focus too much on data and use it to try and measure everything that moves; in terms of lesson observations, learning walks, digital knocks and all the associated activities traditionally associated with quality improvement. Added to this is often a robotic top-down approach to self-assessment reports (SARs) and the drawing up of quality improvement plans (QIPs) imposed on curriculum teams from up above.
As a result, the mere mention of these terms sends a sense of fear and trepidation for staff on the front line of delivery. This creates a divide and tension between teaching staff and management and does not create a culture of 'we are in this improvement journey together'. I have found that this is especially true and adds to staff stress during our recent COVID-19 and lockdown experiences. The Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (EIF) has moved away from the over reliance on data and these approaches, I believe that many FES organisations are still playing catch up.
The Art ...
For me, this has been an important learning journey over my past 3 1/2 years as an interim in the FES sector. The art of the quality improvement is all about those activities that support improvement on a more personal level. What I mean by this, are the things that most of us are doing developmentally to support staff and learners. The use of coaching, mentoring, Advanced Practitioners (AP's), supported experiments, encouraging peer and self-observations using technology, collaboration. learning triads, etc.
Using different language when it comes to professional development, i.e. a move away from the well-trodden paths of questioning, stretch and challenge, high expectations, etc. Too a more inclusive approach that incorporates personalisation of learning, meta-cognition, challenge, sequencing, etc. Now also including deep dives, curriculum reviews and the empowering of middle managers as mini nominees to explain the intent, implementation and impact at a curriculum level.
Getting the balance right! ...
I know all FES organisations use both the Science and Art of quality improvement, but I have a strong feeling that they are more than often not joined up, as much as they could be!
Come certain times in the quality improvement cycle, the Art is relegated, and the Science takes over, often undoing a lot of hard work achieved by the Art. The measuring for measurement sake kicks in, undoing buy in from staff in some circumstances.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand! However, strategies that I have successfully used are:
- Abandoning formal lesson observations as an organisation - Instead, use deep dives, lesson visits (by invitation) and carried out by AP's, coaches and staff within the curriculum area, encourage and use peer observations and self-observations (perfect opportunities now with recordings on MS Teams, Zoom, etc)
- SAR's & QIP's a bottom-up approach - Often we get curriculum areas to do their own self-assessment, yet in organisational SAR's and QIP's they cannot recognise their input at all. Add those details celebrating strengths and pinpointing long term areas for development and involve teaching staff in the validation process.
- Invest in pedagogy - Be this an online platform or a physical space, practice what you preach by allowing staff access to up-to-date resources on best practice and give them the opportunity to practice, share, collaborate and show their skills. Give them access to work by Petty, learning theories or even invest in HOW2’s.
- Embed the EIF in your organisational systems and practices - Use deep dives as often as you can, get teams involved in developing new provision via curriculum intent, focus on the learner voice, work scrutinises, etc. It does not have to be done by managers or the quality team, trust your AP’s, coaches, and staff. This will allow you to gain a rich inclusive evidence base for inspection.
I have used all these approaches and they work! It is about tweaking systems, open communication and taking the opportunity to work in different ways!