Middle managers at the AA boost skills through innovative partnership with Coventry University

Thanks in part to the efforts of a former traffic cop, middle managers at the Automobile Association are booting their skills through an innovative partnership between their employer and a local university.

Instead of going to university to improve themselves, middle managers at the Automobile Association (AA) have gone one better – university has come to them.

Some 28 AA middle managers are taking part in a revolutionary educational project run by Coventry University and backed by a £4m grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HFCE). Called the Capability Improvement Programme (CIP), the course uses real-life work experiences as a basis for raising managerial type skills and giving participants the chance to earn points towards a degree, or an NVQ Level 3 in management.

The funding for CIP is one HFCE response to last year’s Leitch Review of Skills, which called – among much else – for employers to raise staff skill levels.

CIP content is based on what participants do at work and through discussions between the university and senior managers at participating organisations – in this case, the AA. “Work is the curriculum and the curriculum is work,” says Andy Birch, the learning and development consultant (LDC) for the AA’s CIP project.

Around-the-clock work

LDCs are key to CIP projects. They are located in the client’s office, attend relevant meetings there, work cheek by jowl with staff taking the course, assess and give feedback on assignments, and discuss progress and issues with senior management. It’s a lot of work.

“I’m usually in the AA office at Oldbury, in the West Midlands, by 8am,” says Birch. “I pick up my e-mails then have a series of tutorials starting at 9am which are nearly always one to one. I also meet people during the evenings if they’re working shifts – the AA works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I am about to start group working, which will usually take place in the evenings.

“I also visit AA operations centres and the three delegates who are based at the AA’s Cheadle Hulme office.”

Discussion and feedback is important on any course, but it’s absolutely essential for a work-based one such as the CIP, as it creates and shapes so much of the content. On the AA and other CIP courses run by Coventry University, content includes core managerial issues such as: flexibility and adaptability decision making understanding institutional culture and disseminating knowledge to others.

Actual work issues are used to flesh out the content. In the AA’s case, this is done by Birch and a steering group of senior AA managers. They agree a series of case studies which encapsulate content topics and real-life work undertaken by delegates.

Evidence-based approach

According to Coventry University’s employer engagement project director Judy Rumbelow, who oversees the CIP initiative, the content is on a par with level 1 in higher education. This equates to 60 CAT (Credit, Accumulation and Transfer) points – for those who complete the one-year CIP course – which equals half of the first year of a traditional degree course. Some 360 points are required for a degree.

Participants must show they meet competencies defined by organisations involved in the CIP scheme and Coventry University. In the AA’s case, these equate to NVQ Level 3 in management standards. Thus the AA delegates can achieve this qualification.

The starting point for assignments is how delegates are dealing with particular issues in the workplace. “For example,” says Rumbelow, “there is an assignment on decision-making which asks people to focus on a decision they have recently taken at work. They tease out and analyse the process and relate it to the theoretical learning they have to undertake.

“So a large chunk of the assignment work relates to what they are currently doing, as it’s evidence-based.”

Assignments can be delivered in essay form and through a presentation with the LDC present. Delegates are either marked pass or merit and distinction – or returned for more revision if they are not up to scratch. There is no final exam: the CAT points are awarded on the basis of four submitted assignments, while the NVQ element follows the usual portfolio and evidence route.

Accept the challenge

No prior qualifications are needed to undertake the CIP. Birch says most of the AA delegates are educated to Level 2 (five good GCSEs/HNDs etc), though a couple have A levels and one has a degree.

Maureen Tierney, a customer team manager at the AA’s Oldbury call handling operation, is undertaking the CIP. “I absolutely love it,” she says. “I enjoy the academic study and the challenge of linking what I read to the business I work in and to my overall day-to-day work in operational management.”

“Prior to this, I completed the Institute of Management certificate in management, and while that too was enjoyable, the challenge of putting what I read and learn into practical use is far greater.”

This and the rest of the CIP is made possible by the key cog in the learning wheel – the LDC. Rumbelow says they must have experience of training and work in relevant subject areas and a customer service ethos. “We also hope they have higher education teaching experience and are qualified NVQ assessors or verifiers. Some have MAs or MBAs.”

Birch must have read the script. He has a degree, an MA in education and a teaching qualification. He should also be able to empathise with his AA colleagues: he spent 30 years with the West Midlands police, mostly as a motor cycle officer.


Coventry University is keen to hear from employers who are interested in the CIP. They must be relatively large organisations and be prepared to pay a per delegate fee of a few hundred pounds per head, depending on circumstances. E-mail j.rumbelow@coventry.ac.uk

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