Party politics worry over new quality mark
Senior FE and skills figures have told of their concerns that the sector’s new chartered status quality mark could become a political football or simply “sink without trace”.
In a random survey of colleges and independent learning providers (ILPs) from across the country, FE Week has uncovered serious concerns about chartered status, which will be bestowed by the newly-formed Institute of Further Education (IFE).
While there was widespread support for the quality mark — there were fears it might be subject to the changing make-up of successive governments, or suffer the same fate as similar schemes from the past.
John Hyde (pictured), chairman of West Sussex-based HIT Training, said: “Chartered status will succeed if it survives a decade and any changes of political parties and ministers. We have seen several previous schemes in the FE sector which have all withered on the vine.
“Before providers invest in both time and money… they need reassurance from the policy-makers and political parties that it is a long term proposition.”
And Verity Hancock, principal of Leicester College, said: “Colleges are bound to be sceptical about the value of another quality mark for which they are being asked to pay.
“The Training Quality Standard (TQS) was badged as the mark that colleges would need.
“However, it was not understood by employers for whom it was intended to be an indicator, was very expensive and has now sunk without trace.”
Matt Atkinson, principal of City of Bath College, warned against chartered status going “down the same route as the TQS” which was introduced in 2008.
But Richard Weston, strategy manager for Manchester-based ILP Mantra Learning, hoped it would be more successful than previous markers, as “this time the initiative is being driven by the sector for the benefit of the employers and learners”.
The IFE chair, Lord Lingfield, confirmed in March that representatives from a “small group” of providers, who have not been identified, had been chosen to “refine” plans developed by the institute.
And it is understood representatives from the chosen colleges and ILPs will hold talks on chartered status on Wednesday (June 4).
Among the issues likely to be up for discussion is the qualifying criteria for chartered status, and the results of the FE Week survey indicated general agreement that Ofsted inspection results should play a key role.
Mike Hopkins, principal of South & City College Birmingham, said qualification should also recognise providers’ financial health, leadership, responsiveness to business needs, and student and employer satisfaction.
Most respondents agreed there should be a charge for the marker, to cover assessment and administrations costs.
Sohail Oosman, head of quality at Hounslow-based ILP Redwood Education and Skills Ltd, thought providers granted chartered status should pay a £300 annual fee.
However, Mr Hyde rejected yearly payments, but said: “Initial assessment fees will probably need to be around £10,000, depending on the size of the company… with a further fee each time chartered status is re-assessed, say every three years.”
There were mixed views on whether chartered status should just improve providers’ reputations, or entail other benefits such as increased access to funding, while Katy Edwards, managing director of Reading-based ILP Chiltern Training, warned against chartered status being “geared towards colleges and not ILPs”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills declined to comment, but the IFE said: “We are still discussing with the sector, including of course those who are particularly interested in becoming members, matters such as the details of how the institution might operate, and possible admission criteria. We are always keen to hear the views of interested parties.”
The following questions on chartered status were asked of each of the nine survey participants. Some answered each question and some provided one all-encompassing statement.
What requirements should be in place in order to achieve chartered status — for example Ofsted grading, size of SFA/EFA contract, number of learners, success rates, balance sheet, etc?
What benefits should chartered status have — should it be purely reputational or something else, such as entitling providers to increased access to funding?
How much would you pay for the title and how (ie annual fee/one-off)?
What are your general thoughts/hope concerns about chartered status and what does it need to do/be in order to succeed?
What would constitute success for chartered status?
Richard Atkins, principal of Exeter College and president-elect of the Association of Colleges
Since becoming a college principal almost 20 years ago, I have always felt that England’s 340 incorporated colleges (FE, sixth form, specialist etc) have been disadvantaged by not having a clear brand identity.
These colleges have struggled nationally to raise their profile and stature, to distinguish themselves from University Colleges, secondary schools which call themselves colleges, private colleges (some of which have proven to be of poor quality) and independent schools which call themselves colleges.
Locally, our sector’s colleges have frequently flourished and established strong reputations, but regionally and nationally we regularly have to explain who we are, what we do and why we do it well.
I feel that chartered status has the potential to address this issue. I understand that gaining a Royal Charter can take many years, but I think the journey would be worth it to achieve recognition of the importance, quality and scope of our colleges.
The Worshipful Company of Educators, a City livery company, was finally established in 2009 after more than a decade of preparation, and serves as a useful example of achieving formal recognition for the education and skills sector.
Following this logic, I therefore believe that all colleges judged good or outstanding by Ofsted, and with sound financial health, should be eligible to apply for chartered status.
I accept that if a college subsequently falls below this benchmark, then it would lose its chartered status. I understand that each college should pay a fee for the privilege and recognition of chartered status, based on a simple framework related to the size of the college.
I also believe that, as with the Company of Educators, the group leading and promoting the concept of chartered status for colleges should include representatives who are currently leading colleges.
Chartered status confers recognition and status on all sorts of professional bodies and organisations in English society. Why not extend this to a sector which educates and trains millions of our citizens, young and old?
Potentially, this is one way of addressing a traditional English problem — raising the status of vocational teaching and learning.
Matt Atkinson, principal of City of Bath College
1) This is difficult because are we convinced that we need this? However, on the basis that this is going ahead any criteria must be based on genuine quality. I would also throw something in on effective community and employer engagement.
2) We need to be clear here on what makes Chartered status. The most powerful badge a college receives is the Ofsted Outstanding one and this results in huge benefits as well as recognising the excellence of the college.
One concern is that chartered status goes down the same route as the Training Quality Standard — a number of colleges did a lot of work on this and at one stage it was suggested that future funding would be linked to this.
Chartered status can only really bring reputational benefits but again will this add anything to other ratings such as Ofsted?
3) At a time when FE funding is significantly reducing this needs to be considered very carefully indeed. We need to be convinced of the genuine benefits in order to be prepared to pay for it. We also need to be clear about what we would be paying for exactly.
4) I think I’ve picked that up in some of my points above — cut and paste as you see fit.
5) This really depends on what it is designed to do. If this is an investment colleges need to be able to see the return on the investment. Most colleges already have strong reputations and relationships in their local communities so would this enhance this further? Ultimately, if chartered status presents new income generating opportunities to colleges and these are realised that could be considered a success.
Mark Brickley, principal of Kensington and Chelsea College
In essence chartered status has the potential to be a positive move for the sector. However, it is important to scrutinise the process by which the status is acquired in the first place, in particular the robustness of the criteria set to meet the charter requirements.
There should also be an emphasis on continued assessment once a provider has gained chartered status. Chartered status should be the pinnacle of excellence and be of true value to potential learners and stakeholders.
It should be something by which any provider who gains chartered status should ultimately be judged, and not simply just another accreditation.
Katy Edwards, managing director of Reading-based ILP Chiltern Training
I do think the introduction of a charter mark could be beneficial for the sector as a whole, helping good quality FE providers to raise their status in the communities they serve.
However until providers know more about what the evidence requirements and measures to be used will be and also the costs involved it is hard to say how achievable the Charter Mark might be for smaller, regional providers like Chiltern.
I do also have some real concerns that the chartered status will be geared towards FE colleges and not independent training providers. We also need to know how this status will sit alongside pre-existing quality marks and processes.
The chartered status scheme needs to be carefully introduced so that it is achievable to all the diverse FE providers in order for it to have real meaning and value to the sector.
Verity Hancock, principal of Leicester College, (directly answered questions):
1) We would be concerned if size of contract were a determining factor – size should have no bearing on whether a college were able to achieve chartered status.
While there would sensibly be a quality dimension and naturally Ofsted would be one of the indicators, we would be unhappy if it were only available to ‘outstanding’ colleges.
This would mean it would be restricted to a very small group. It should be a quality mark that is achievable by all colleges otherwise it runs the risk of being ignored by many.
With a range of quality measures in play, there is the potential for a complex matrix of indicators, any one of which might prohibit an otherwise high quality and successful college from achieving chartered status.
We would hope that any decisions based on criteria would be sufficiently sensitive to take into account a range of factors – including learner and employer feedback. Inevitably, the more complex the set of criteria, the more complicated, time-consuming and therefore costly the assessment is likely to be.
If it is to have credibility and genuine value to prospective employer customers and learners, there should be the option for those colleges which are grade 4 or in serious financial difficulty to have their status suspended until the notices to improve are removed.
Evidence for whatever criteria are decided upon could be provided through inspection reports although these will be historical documents, particularly for outstanding colleges.
FE Choices will provide more information and some would need to be provided by the SFA. Some of the evidence to meet these criteria would be qualitative and some quantitative.
In terms of qualitative information, it may be that colleges themselves would need to provide this but we would support a light touch approach which allowed reference to other sources of information as necessary.”
2) The main benefits should be reputational. The primary use would be for those organisations and learners who may not necessarily be familiar with the multiplicity of measures and definitions of success that are used in FE, notably employers and overseas students.
There has to be a way for genuine and reputable FE colleges that operate and have done for many years in the regulatory and quality frameworks to be differentiated from other ‘colleges’ which cannot offer the same levels of quality or continuity.
These have done much to devalue the status of colleges and as we know the concept of ‘bogus’ colleges muddies the waters when it comes to discussions about colleges at national level.
We do not think there would be much to be gained from using it as a way of differentiating access to funding. In the current financial climate we would be concerned if this were to place more hurdles in front of colleges that are already struggling financially by reducing their ability to bid for certain funding.
Depending upon the criteria, this could mean that many colleges are excluded for accessing some funding which could further destabilise or weaken the sector — this seems counterintuitive given that this is a mark designed to add status to and enhance the reputation of the sector.”
3) Costs of application might prove a disincentive as they did initially for some colleges seeking the Training Quality Standard.
There needs to be some demonstrable benefit to colleges applying which will depend on chartered status having value to colleges.
It rather depends on how it is awarded and what criteria are used. We suspect it may also depend on how resource intensive it will be to undertake the assessment. Presumably it should be self-financing and so, and if it is labour intensive and requires in depth assessment of evidence, will that also mean that the costs need to be met by the applicant organisation?
If a fee is to be charged, and the rationale for charging that fee that costs must be covered, it would seem logical for the charge to be made whenever assessment takes place, which we hope would not be that frequently.
4) We think there is value in having a protected title for colleges although it will remain to be seen whether all colleges see the value and consider going through the application process a worthwhile endeavour.
Colleges are bound to be sceptical about the value of another quality mark for which they are being asked to pay. The TQS was badged as the mark that colleges would need.
However it was not understood by employers for whom it was intended to be an indicator, was very expensive and has now sunk without trace.
In order to be understood it needs to be well promoted, nationally and internationally as the primary indicator of a legitimate and reliable college — if indeed that is what it is to be.
Promoting brand recognition outside the sector may help to add value but bearing in mind the restrictions around national communications and marketing strategies, we would be interested to know how the concept and importance of chartered status would be communicated and spread in order to create that value.
As statutory bodies, colleges are different from for profit private providers. They have different missions and different roles within local communities.
As such they occupy a different position in the education sector and have long histories of delivering education and training.
We would have concerns if the protection of chartered status were diluted by extension to organisations that can be much more transitory.
For chartered status to have credibility there needs to be some measure of assurance that it can be removed under certain exceptional circumstances – for example, quality or financial factors.
However, we think that regular reassessment is unnecessary, could be burdensome and costly, and so once awarded, it should be in place for 6 years.”
5) Chartered status is still in existence and achieved by the majority of colleges over a reasonable period of time, say 10-15 years and that it is seen as a valuable quality measure by employers and by international students.”
Mike Hopkins, principal of South & City College Birmingham
I do believe that establishing chartered status for FE colleges will be a good thing and enhance colleges’ positions and reputations and at the same time improve the reputation of the FE sector.
It should replace and provide a significantly better and broader kitemark than the previous Beacon status as it will include far more than just Ofsted gradings and assessment.
To be credible, the criteria for achieving chartered status needs to include quality, which may include Ofsted gradings and success rates; financial Health, which should include the balance sheet and perhaps operational surpluses and perhaps an internal and external audit assessment; a data integrity assessment; good leadership and management — not just as determined by the new Ofsted grading; responsiveness to local businesses and the local economy; student outcomes in terms of progression and employment; student satisfaction; and, employer satisfaction.
All of this needs to be assessed by a fair and transparent process.
As a college, achieving and retaining chartered status would raise our profile and provide and accepted benchmark for excellence which will assist in student recruitment both locally, and from overseas.
It would be a significant reference point for external work with employers and for contracting/bidding and, hopefully enable far greater autonomy.
While I accept that there will be some form of charge/fee for acquiring chartered status and I am comfortable with this, I have no views at this stage on either how this should be calculated or the level of fee.
John Hyde, chair of West Sussex-based HIT Training
1) While all the above should be taken into account, other external accreditations should be considered, particularly from the sector the provider operates in, for example we have accreditation from People 1st, our sector skills council.
Ofsted is important, but a narrow measure so detailed satisfaction levels from employers and learners with case study illustrations should be considered to give a fuller view of how provider meets its sector or local needs and responsibilities.
It should also consider any innovative and cutting edge activities the provider is pioneering. It also needs to consider the professional expertise of the provider’s staff, both the train and assess but also their vocational expertise from their sector.
2) To encourage providers to support chartered status and invest in the time and financial costs, an incentive from SFA/EFA for increased contract size or invitations to pioneer new initiatives ahead of non-chartered status providers should be considered.
3) If chartered status is to be credible, it needs a vigorous assessment process to include a detailed submission from the provider and on-site interviews with a percentage of provider’s staff, employer clients and learners.
This costs money to be properly undertaken, so initial assessment fees will probably need to be around £10,000 depending on the size of the company. I do not support an annual fee, but a further fee each time the chartered status is re-assessed, say every three years.
4) Chartered status will enhance the reputation of independent learning providers and counterbalance the damage done by the very small number of corrupt providers, whose illegal activities have dominated policy thinking while demonstrating the weakness of current audit and quality controls.
If apprenticeship funding goes to the employer and they have to select both training and assessment providers, then chartered status, in addition to the other criteria available, will give employers another benchmark to make their choice, especially as the roles of Ofsted and HSE are radically diminished under the new ‘reforms’.
To succeed, chartered status needs to be robust and the routes to achievement transparent and open to public scrutiny. It needs the support of government which could be demonstrated by access to additional contracts and funding, and a reduction of inspections.
5) It will succeed if it survives a decade and any changes of political parties and ministers. We have seen several previous schemes in the FE sector which have all withered on the vine.
Obviously the policy makers have decided chartered status is another route they wish to use to reward the best providers and encourage the others to aim higher.
Before providers invest in both time and money to achieve chartered status they need reassurance from the policy makers and political parties that it is a long term proposition and will be widely advertised to the public, potential learners and employers to justify their investment.
Sohail Oosman, head of quality at Hounslow-based ILP Redwood Education and Skills Ltd
1) Ofsted grade one and two should enable providers to achieve chartered status, with success rates a minimum of 85 per cent.
2) Benefits should include priority invitations to tender for new business, reputational and priority access to funding.
3) An annual fee of £300 is reasonable.
4) I believe that this is a good idea and would be a kite mark for high quality providers that deserve recognition for the good work that they do. I hope that providers with chartered status would see the benefits of having this status.
Award ceremonies to celebrate the successes of chartered status providers would be well received by members and also regular network meetings to share knowledge and good practice would be beneficial.
5) Having a network of providers that are market leaders and the first choice for employers and learners seeking vocational training.
Richard Weston, strategy manager for Manchester-based ILP Mantra Learning
Mantra Learning wholeheartedly supports the introduction of chartered status for the FE sector.
In the past we have seen many quality marque initiatives that have been imposed on the sector from outside, often with little or no understanding of what we are really about.
This time round the initiative is being driven by the sector for the benefit of the employers and learners that we serve.
Not only do we believe that chartered status will help to drive up standards across the sector but it will also make sure that as providers we are clearly focused on delivering a tangible return on investment for our employers and learners.
In this new world where employers are being compelled to contribute to the cost of training and older learners are taking out loans to pay for their learning programmes – it is only reasonable that as providers we are able to demonstrate the real value of what we deliver.
Through chartered status we have an opportunity to build this credibility with our paying customers.