Four years after its inception, the future of the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) is already uncertain, following proposals to reduce the number of government inspectorates from 11 to four. In his recent budget, chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to bring the inspection of adult services together with children’s services into the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). He stated: “The government will consult with employers on the future of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, with the expectation that by 2008 it will also be part of this single inspectorate for education, children’s services and skills.”
The demise of the ALI is not a done deal. Its director of inspection, Nicky Perry, says: “We have been told unequivocally that it is open to debate, depending on what employers and partner organisations say. We expect the LSC (Learning and Skills Council), CBI (Confederation of British Industry), IoD (Institute of Directors), all the SSCs (sector skills councils) and funding bodies to have a chance to say what they think.”
The inspectorate hopes that the considerable work it has done for government departments – not least the report on the training of Armed Forces recruits recently produced for the Ministry of Defence – will also help its case.
It is not the first time that the idea of having just four education inspectorates has been mooted. Last summer, the ALI went through a similar exercise when the department for education and skills asked law firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to investigate a possible merger between the work of ALI and Ofsted.
“Its conclusion was that industry likes it the way it is, and there were no savings of any significance to be gained by any sort of merger with Ofsted,” Perry says.
Yet, the subject is back on the agenda, and the implications of the budget announcement are clear.
Gordon Brown’s statement has received mixed reactions. Rationalisation may be a good thing, but there is concern that the expertise of the ALI inspectors could be lost within a broader inspectorate.
Philip Whiteman, chief executive of Semta, the SSC for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, reflects the consensus when he says: “Primarily, we support reducing the number of quangos, provided that the quality of the ALI’s work does not suffer. We’ve been very impressed with the quality standards that it has set, but at present, some providers get two visits – one from Ofsted and one from the ALI – which is not sensible use of taxpayers’ money. A cost saving seems possible, and we could use the money to spend on training.”
But Whiteman adds a note of caution: “There’s a great danger that [the merger] might be mishandled, and we’d end up with something weaker than what we had before.”
Keith Marshall, chief executive of SummitSkills, the SSC for building services, also supports the notion that inspection activities should be combined, but points out that employers value the ALI’s peer approach to inspection, using skill specialists to inspect specialist provision.
“If we can broadly streamline the inspection process and yet still maintain a situation where the plumbing provision is being inspected by somebody who understands plumbing and the electrician provision is being inspected by somebody who understands electricians, it’s a win-win situation,” he says. “We get continued improvement in the quality of provision, and the inspection load on the off-the-job trainers is reduced.”
Marshall is adamant that the same level of detail pursued by the ALI inspectors should be retained. He is fearful that a generalisation of inspection could destroy its value.
“Our sector is particularly interested in plumbing, electricians, air conditioning, heating and ventilation. When employers are handing over hard-earned cash to work-based providers, they want to know how good they are at training in these areas,” says Marshall.
“For inspection to have value, it has to go into detail,” he adds. “If it doesn’t, it’s irrelevant, and we’ll put our own alternative methods in place for assessing the quality of provision.”
For learning providers, the prospect of more change is daunting.
“We’re forever battling with changes and this is just another one – alarm bells are starting to ring,” says Ian Mynett, operations director of Brunel Training Group. “The people who inspect us know the training world – they understand work-based learning. The ALI is a good thing, and I wouldn’t want to see what we’ve got now eroded.”
Providers such as BTG, which was among the first to be inspected under the ALI regime, are coming up to their second inspection. They value continuity and consistency.
“We’re looking forward to our next inspection as it proves that you’re doing the right thing, and helps you progress and improve,” Mynett says. “It’s not helpful to have the goalposts moved. The things that are proposed to be put together seem a real mixed bag, and maybe it won’t work.”
BTG’s independence and focus on adult skills is seen by the ALI as vital. Perry echoes others’ concerns when she says: “We don’t believe that you can sensibly maintain that level of detail and specification in a large conglomerate inspectorate that looks at everything from nursery education to adult education. If you want to keep a level of credible expertise you’ve got to have a certain marketable focus. In our case, we’re the inspectorate for adult skills – everybody understands that and you’ve got a chance of keeping your eye on the ball.”
The Association of Colleges welcomes the prospect of a single inspectorate. Quality manager, Rosemary Clark, explains: “We have always argued that having two inspectorates wasn’t helpful because there is inconsistency.”
Although both the ALI and Ofsted use the Common Inspection Framework, the two bodies have different cultures and approaches. Clark believes the ways in which they conduct inspections are becoming increasingly divergent.
Cycle of inspections
“Now there’s the next cycle of inspections which is going to be even more different,” she says. “With the ALI doing more longitudinal inspection it’s going to increase the differentials between the two inspectorates, so we’d be pleased to see one inspectorate.”
Differences between Ofsted and the ALI are significant. “For the ALI, inspection is done with an organisation,” says Marshall. “The Ofsted model is that inspection is something done to an organisation.”
Key questions concerning a merger are: how could such variations be reconciled within a single body, and which culture should prevail? Many stakeholders seem to favour the ALI.
“If the ALI mops up Ofsted, that would be great, but I don’t think it will happen that way as the ALI is a smaller part,” says Mynett. “The worry is that it would be squashed in.”
Finding a balance
Clark says: “The developmental focus of the ALI inspection is welcomed, where inspectors are prepared to discuss with providers how they might improve quality rather than just turn up one week, make snap judgements, and then disappear. With Ofsted there is never any dialogue.”
Almost all general further education (FE) colleges educate a majority of students aged over 19. According to Clark, colleges have expressed the view that in ALI-led inspections, there is a greater understanding of the particular features of an FE college and the challenges that are posed by the learners.
“Our concerns are that the good practice that the ALI has been showing might be lost, and we’d be very anxious that certain features of ALI inspections were evident in the new body,” Clark adds.
Those features include a strong focus on the learner. ALI inspectors interview a proportion of learners to assess how the provision is meeting their needs, and the findings are included in the inspection report. While learners may not be the ALI’s direct customers, since they are not buying its services, they are the consumers of the services being inspected. That makes them – and their employers – a vital part of the equation.
Perry says: “In most contexts, the learners are the primary customer. They are our focus. We always ask: what is the benefit to the learner?”
Any new body must keep the learner centre stage. It must also retain the best of all current inspection practices.
Marshall concludes: “If you’re going to bring a variety of organisations together, there’s certainly a babies and bath water issue. All of them do something very well, none of them does everything very well. The skill is going to be sifting out the good bits and pulling them together in one cohesive body.”
History of the ALI at work
1997 Training Standards Council (TSC) is set up as a non-departmental government body to inspect publicly-funded work-based training and help drive up standards
2001 Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) succeeds TSC with a wider remit: work-based training for all people aged over 16; education for people aged over 19 in further education colleges; all adult and community learning; learning in prisons; Jobcentre Plus provision; e-learning via learndirect provided by Ufi and its partners; and training provided by private industry at the employer’s invitation
2001 Common Inspection Framework for inspecting post-16 education and training published for use by the ALI and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
2002 The ALI reports 60% of providers inspected are inadequate
2003 Inspection failure rates fall to 46%
2004 Failure rates down to 34% during 2003-2004 and falling
2005 The ALI announces new ‘Right Touch’ inspection model – a more efficient approach to second-round inspections