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'Flexible funding: don't do it for Ofsted'

David Russell, chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation, writes:

The recent Ofsted report on study programmes flagged very clearly a missed opportunity by providers:.

 “Very few providers surveyed have made the best use of the flexibility created by the changes to the funding arrangements to provide individualised study programmes tailored to learners’ careers plans and their developmental needs.”

The changes to funding are, quite simply, the key to unlocking the potential of study programmes. Follow the money. Only by using their ability to pool resources will providers be able to “provide an opportunity to create a personalised curriculum for learners” as Professor Alison Wolf put it.

Study programmes provide the capacity to increase the amount of non-qualification provision. As the EFA has acknowledged: “non-qualification outcomes and activities can assist the teaching and learning of the core or substantial qualification within the study programme for learners at any level.”

They helpfully describe these as  ”employability skills” and suggest they include written and oral communication, mathematical skills, teamwork, leadership, taking responsibility, problem solving, creativity, reflective thinking and independent enquiry.

This speaks directly to a serious development need Ofsted highlighted – a lack of progression for students onto more challenging work, and the well known challenges around providing enough high quality work experience. It is striking that providers that do well in this area, like East Norfolk College which is using its funding to employ a work placement coordinator, are the ones that are exploiting the opportunities afforded by funding flexibility.

Funding flexibility is a tool, not an obligation.  It was introduced to empower professionals in designing and delivering bespoke learning programmes (within reason). Ofsted rightly looks for progress and outcomes, not for processes or mechanisms; but without full creative use of funding flexibility it is unlikely providers will be able to offer the best possible education and training with the funding available. And Ofsted will pick that up, of course.

Ofsted found, for example, that very few providers arranged for some of their learners to work towards fewer qualifications to create time for them to participate in non-qualification activity and/or work experience, and for this reason they felt their provision was not sufficiently "individualised”.

“Are my programmes sufficiently individualised?” is an important question to bear in mind when planning your curriculum offer, and funding flexibilities could provide the way to do this.

Whatever the technical changes made to the funding system, providers will always remain focused on excellent education.  When it comes to vocational education, excellence means provision with a clear line of sight to work, delivered by dual professionals, in industry-standard conditions, with pathways to higher level learning. 

Achievement of qualifications is very often a core component of the offer, but it is not a defining feature of all excellent vocational education.  Providers should use all the flexibilities they have to help them offer a rigorous relevant curriculum which takes the learner from where she is to where she wants to get to, on the most efficient and effective route.  

Ofsted have given us a helpful reality check that this is not yet happening across the board; the up-sides of funding reform must be seized by providers if they are to provide the most excellent education possible, as they all strive to do. 

Find out more about funding here.

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