An apprenticeships firm hit with a damaging ‘insufficient progress’ judgement from Ofsted in 2019 has been rated ‘outstanding’ after its first full inspection – a feat no other new provider has achieved.
Wiser Academy Ltd was on the verge of collapse after it was suspended from recruiting apprentices following an early monitoring visit in July 2019 which resulted in two ‘insufficient progress’ judgments.
During Covid-19, the provider’s leaders expressed frustration after Ofsted paused inspections – something that meant their inability to take on apprentices was prolonged.
However, they were able to turn the company’s fortunes around, with their latest inspection resulting in ‘outstanding’ judgements in four out of five categories.
“I’m absolutely over the moon,” Wiser Academy’s director Crescens George told FE Week.
“Considering in 2019 when we had our first visit, of course we couldn’t recruit learners, and then come 2020 March lockdown in the pandemic, the business couldn’t grow.
“We were still in the lockdown, so trying to transform a business to get it to a ‘good’ rating is itself challenging… Amidst all the challenges we all faced, getting an ‘outstanding’ is really something we are proud of as a team.
“Going from the verge of the business going bust to an ‘outstanding’ is an incredible feat,” he added.
Wiser Academy is based in Hampshire but trains apprentices in the insurance and financial services sector across the country.
The provider offers insurance-based apprenticeship standards at levels 3, 4 and 6 nationally. At the time of its inspection there were 97 apprentices in learning.
Under current government rules, providers that are new to apprenticeship delivery receive an early monitoring visit from Ofsted within 24 months of being funded.
If they score ‘insufficient progress’ in one or more themes they are temporarily banned from recruiting apprentices until they can score at least ‘requires improvement’ in a full inspection.
Wiser Academy was expecting a re-inspection by March 2020, but this was postponed due to the pandemic, something that put significant financial pressure on the company.
“Basically [we] were on a journey towards diminishing cash flow. Towards the later part of the year, we had to dip into our reserves to support the learners and ensure they were still supported,” George told FE Week.
Ofsted eventually came to do a second monitoring visit in October 2020 – where Wiser Academy was judged to have made ‘reasonable progress’ in all three themes.
Around a year and half later, the provider was rated ‘outstanding’ by the regulator.
An analysis of Ofsted data by FE Week found that no other new provider has made such a jump.
In a report published today, inspectors said that Wiser Academy provides “high-quality, highly personalised training”.
“Leaders have made it their mission to train the apprentices so that they are the highest qualified insurance specialists,” the report said.
This contrasted sharply with the provider’s initial report where Ofsted found that leaders and managers did not plan the apprentices’ training programmes well enough.
George told FE Week how he managed to achieve such an impressive turn around.
“We stripped everything back and started rebuilding everything from scratch – in terms of our ethos, our values, team processes, systems, engagement strategies… everything.
“We had about four key areas that we were prioritising… what we first did was change our delivery model. We went from the typical once a month touch point interaction to a weekly interaction with all our learners.
“Our training method is not the typical apprenticeship delivery where you meet with your assessor once every four weeks or eight weeks or whatever.”
He explained that all of Wiser Academy’s learners have weekly face to face or live virtual training sessions. Each apprentice has at least two and a half hours of training time with their trainer.
“The core message that I give my team is ‘don’t worry too much about the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the tick-box exercises’. Our mantra was, focus on the learners and everything else will follow,” George added.