Standards come under scrutiny

The Training Standards Council does a thorough job of checking up on publicly-funded training. But many employers and providers feel that it is treading an increasingly fine line between onerous bureaucracy and helpful intervention. Elaine Essery looks at what happens when the TSC inspector calls

In its relatively short lifespan, the Training Standards Council has come to pride itself on taking a tough stance. Its recently published second annual report illustrates that the TSC plays a crucial role in driving up standards in work-based training funded by the Government.

In the report chief inspector David Sherlock notes that employers training their own staff achieve the highest standards of provision, whereas many of the worst providers are small private training companies.

Few would deny the need for a national inspectorate to curb unscrupulous providers, but does the TSC have the right focus or do its requirements place an undue burden on employers?

"They do a thorough job, but my only reservation is the amount of time and resources it took for the small number of trainees we have," said David Lee, senior engineering training officer at Corus (Construction and Industrial), formerly British Steel. A team of three inspectors spent four days looking at the training provision for 39 trainees.

Gradings were satisfactory except for quality assurance, the generic area most often subject to reinspection. Corus learnt from the inspection, Lee said, and he has no argument with the standards providers are expected to reach.

But he is mindful of the need to strike a balance between training excellence and commercial reality. "You sometimes wonder whether it’s worth it for the amount of money you’re being given to support your training.

"We’re looking more and more at the bottom line and talking about value-added activity and you have to ask yourself whether it’s good for the business to be spending a lot of time on that."

He acknowledges the room for improvement. "In terms of quality assurance there are things we can do and will do to get to an acceptable level, but we aren’t going to the ends of the earth to satisfy them."

There is a similar view at Perkins Engines. It too fell down on quality assurance, appealed unsuccessfully then achieved a grade 3 on reinspection.

Being awarded a grade 4 was a surprise. Perkins believes it was doing everything possible – a view endorsed by the local Tec.


Tightening up procedure


The company’s response to the inspectors’ findings was to tighten up existing procedures and introduce others.

Personnel officer Michelle Biggs, Perkins’ nominee for the inspection, admitted, "We sat down and wrote the procedures for a reason – primarily to achieve a satisfactory grading, but now we’ve introduced them it’s been quite helpful to us."

Reinspection proved to be a positive experience, but Biggs describes the first inspection as "very demanding with feedback meetings until eight o’clock every night. Part of the challenge was not knowing what to expect".

She estimated that staff attended over 10 days of workshops and seminars to help them conduct their self-assessment and prepare for the inspection.

"We put a lot of effort into our self-assessment report and did what we thought was right, but were totally unsure whether it was what was wanted. As it turned out, our lead inspector told us it was one of the best reports he’d seen," said Biggs.

Yet there were discrepancies over gradings, some of which the inspection team increased and others which they lowered. In these areas the company would have welcomed more guidance as to how it might improve. "I understand that the TSC can’t tell us what to do, but even when we suggested other ways of doing things they wouldn’t comment, which was frustrating," said Biggs.

When it came to writing an action plan, Perkins was unaware at first that it needed to address not only weaknesses but strengths. The company was determined to deliver within the timescale, which meant lots of working lunches, as there was not enough time in the normal working day to get the job done.

Biggs echoed Lee’s concerns about the expenditure of staff resources relative to value added. "I think most companies are in a culture these days where training Modern Apprentices is probably only 10 per cent of the job. When you don’t have the resources to have someone full-time doing the paperwork, you find you’re spending less time with the trainees and adding value to the business."

Precisely because Modern Apprentice training is just a small part of its business Kwik-Fit (GB) welcomed the TSC inspection. Training and development co-ordinator Paul Binks said, "You’ve got to look at an organisation like Kwik-Fit as an employer delivering Government-funded training.

"The apprentice scheme we run is probably less than 5 per cent of the company’s business, so having the inspection tends to bring a focus to things that wasn’t there before and we’re reaping the benefits."

Kwik-Fit set out to be as critical as it could be of its own performance. By the time the inspection took place, many of the actions the company had taken as a result of its self-assessment were already paying dividends. "The good thing is that you can almost view the external inspection as a free consultation," said Binks.

"I can understand that some people may see it as a hindrance, but certainly from our point of view it was very worthwhile."


Stringent assessment


Inspectors commended Kwik-Fit on its stringent assessment and upgraded the company in every area, but it will be reinspected because procedures for the management of training were not sufficiently embedded to merit a satisfactory grading.

Rather than do the minimum, however, Kwik-Fit is embracing the continuous improvement philosophy. "Even now we’re looking at the actions to see how they can be tweaked to make them a little better. We’re quite looking forward to reinspection," said Binks.

For organisations whose raison d’être is training people, inspection is no less tough an experience. YMCA Training faced an enormous self-assessment task, which included assessing training in seven occupational areas and foundation for work, delivered by some 20 centres nationwide.

Quality manager Diana Beardsell welcomed being assessed as a single entity, but found the experience uncomfortable at times. "I felt that the TSC had made the process as clear as possible and given as much information as they could, but the worry in your mind is, have you interpreted it correctly?"

The organisation knew it had problems with quality assurance and inspectors agreed with its grade 4.

It had already started work in that area and wanted changes to be introduced in a sustainable manner. There was no question of simply reacting to TSC requirements, and continuous improvement driven from within earned the organisation a much-better grade 2 on reinspection.

"As a parent, a taxpayer and from the point of view of someone who’s been employed in the training sector for 15 years, I don’t have a problem with the standards," Beardsell said.

But she does have a problem with the mismatch between inspection criteria and the way contracts are written. "Output-related funding puts the focus on outcomes and not the process by which they’re achieved. Producing an outcome isn’t about ticking boxes and accrediting skills which already exist, it’s about upskilling people."

There is also some criticism that the TSC inspectors take a narrow focus.

Training and development manager at GKN Westland Aerospace on the Isle of Wight, Liz West, would like to see a more broad-minded approach. "The entire focus is on Government-funded training, in other words the delivery and achievement of NVQs and Key Skills," she said.


History


"We’ve got a very good history of training apprentices – we put technician apprentices through institutionally accredited schemes for engineers – but the inspectors were only concerned about the Modern Apprenticeship system, not the quality of training we can deliver."

West admits that at the time of the inspection staffing problems meant that the NVQ system was not fully established within the organisation but the action plan has provided a focus to meet the requirements.

"The TSC is there for the right reasons, because we need to ensure all training providers are achieving a minimum standard for their young people," West concedes. "It’s hard when you know you can deliver high quality training to meet the standards of the Engineering Council but it’s not in the remit of the TSC to recognise it."

For this reason GKN Westland Aerospace even considered pulling out of Government-funded schemes, but realised it would be difficult to recruit young people if it could not offer a national qualification and a recognised apprenticeship.

Corus and Perkins have had similar considerations. "If value added activity means that if we don’t reach the standards we’re going to lose support for our training, we’ve got to make a decision one way or the other," said Lee.

Biggs commented, "It seems you have to do more and more for less and less money. A lot of companies have pulled out of funding and we’ve thought very carefully about it. We may be moving to taking on people after they’ve been trained."

If such views signal a trend among employers, it poses a serious threat to both the quality and quantity of work-based training.

In April next year, the TSC will be replaced by the Adult Learning Inspectorate, still with the current chief inspector David Sherlock at the helm, and its remit will be even wider in terms of the publicly-funded training it will inspect. Many feel that it needs to strike a balance between onerous bureaucracy and helpful intervention if it is to safeguard the adequate provision of good training.


How to make the grade


Since 1998,the Training Standards Council has been responsible for the independent inspection of Government-funded, work-based training in England. It draws its funding from the Department for Education and Employment and its chief inspector reports annually on the findings of the inspectorate.

Training providers are required to produce an annual self-assessment report.

This must examine strengths and weaknesses in each occupational area where training is provided, along with four generic areas: equal opportunities, trainee support, quality assurance, management of training, and present a grade for each.

The gradings range from 1 for outstanding through to 5 for poor. Of the in- between gradings, 2 is good, 3 is satisfactory, and 4 is less than satisfactory. Providers are inspected, with due notice, every four years by a team of TSC inspectors which examines the provision, awards its own grades and presents its own report for publication on the TSC web site www.tsc.gov.uk

Each provider is then required to produce an action plan, detailing how the strengths and weaknesses identified will be addressed. Providers that have been awarded a grade 4 or 5 in any area are reinspected within a year.

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