The increased freedoms and flexibilities that study programmes will allow are to be welcomed, says Dean O’Donoghue. But how they will be judged by Ofsted?

From September all post-16 providers will introduce 16 to 19 study programmes, coinciding with the raising of the participation age (RPA) and a revised funding methodology.

The overall move to fixed level funding will require post-16 providers to be creative with their curriculum. The expectation from the Education Funding Agency is that funding will service an average of 600 guided learning hours (glh).

The programmes will allow for more innovative teaching and support the drive for greater breadth, ensuring that learners gain  personal social and employability skills. In her review of adult learning, Alison Wolf said that study programmes provided an opportunity “to create a personalised curriculum for learners”. What she didn’t expand on was how one student’s personalised curriculum might be judged against that of another, or what a “good” personalised curriculum would look like.

One key freedom is the capacity to increase the amount of non-qualification provision, which will be accounted for through auditing (with accountability shifting more towards glh).   Non-qualification outcomes and activities can boost teaching and learning at any level. For example, recent research by the Education Employer Task Force shows that the most successful academic students benefit hugely from work experience to support their UCAS applications.

Traineeships will encourage more non-qualification provision such as personal development, work-readiness and work experience.  Colleagues working with learners  with special educational needs and disability (SEND) have considerable freedom and flexibility to use non-qualification outcomes to demonstrate the development of communication and number skills through life skills and employability contexts; we await the outcome of the Wirral Lifelong Learning Service pilot with interest.

Inspectors will evaluate the extent to which learners develop personal, social and employability skills”

But how will Ofsted judge flexibility, freedom and personalisation? Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has made clear that Ofsted will focus on the “attainment and progress of learners with progress being at the heart of judgment”. Inspectors will evaluate the extent to which learners develop personal, social and employability skills, and progress to courses leading to higher-level qualifications and into jobs that meet local and national needs.

The criteria will apply equally to learners at entry level and those with SEND.  Ofsted isn’t known for its enthusiasm for innovation or individualism.  Inspectors have their set of criteria and it is up to the lecturer or institution to make sure that they point them in the right direction; labelling  appropriate content in block capitals and flashing neon is optional, but recommended.

The big question, surely, is how you evaluate and document the extent to which skills — be they personal, social, employability, communication or number — are developed if the provision is non-qualification?  I can only answer this with more questions: “How can distance travelled be demonstrated without some form of assessment?”  “What kind of test is fit for purpose methodology for personal, social and employability skills?” And “doesn’t this rather undermine the point of non-qualification provision?”

Either the inspectorate has to allow more leeway for professional interpretation than it has in the past or we will find ourselves clinging to qualification outcomes that are costly and don’t respond to the Department for Education’s drive for the more enriching parts of the curriculum to become less formal.  It’s almost as if we’ve been caught in a paradox….

Dean O’Donoghue, national development co-ordinator for ASDAN Education