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Let's tackle the causes, not the symptoms

Tackling 23 issues, not symptoms, would set FE on the course for systemic success, writes Tony Davis

college symptom success failure health

Tackling 23 issues, not symptoms, would set FE on the course for systemic success, writes Tony Davis

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. Just can’t help looking on the bright side. Tiring, I know, if you’re the “other” type. Any observers of the FE and skills soap opera would be forgiven for thinking that a lot of people might look weary at the likes of me just now. With so few positive articles, reports or commentaries it might seem we are heading for dystopia. But this would only get me down if I thought our issues weren’t all fixable. They are. Bear with me. We’re talking high-level policy here.

One of my favourite pieces of work is helping education providers question their self-assessment process. For me, self-assessment is one of the most creative parts of any member of staff’s day job. Trouble is, so few, at least at first, would agree. The problem begins as soon as they examine their data and find something they don’t like, such as poor retention rates; poor high-grade pass rates; poor attendance; you get the idea. They then label these as “weaknesses to be rectified”, and set to with great gusto before the big “O” comes knocking again. The trouble is, none of these (and many, many more) are issues – they’re symptoms.

Understanding the difference between an “issue” and a “symptom” is the single most important aspect of quality improvement – irrespective of what profession you’re in. And here’s the punchline: “you can never fix a symptom directly”. Never.

If you’re not convinced, just imagine your doctor setting up a repeat prescription for paracetamol to tackle your constant headache; the root-cause of which turns out to be your brain tumour.

Issue or symptom

To decide if something is an issue or a symptom is not just easy, it’s extremely enjoyable. Take “poor retention rates” as an example. Issue or symptom? To find out, just ask: “So why’s that then?” If you can come up with a plausible reason – such as “learners find the course too difficult” – then you know retention is a symptom of this deeper issue. But is “learners finding the course too difficult” the root-cause issue? Simply ask again: “So why’s that then?” and keep going until you feel you’ve found the root.

Time and again, as a consultant or HMI, I’ve delighted in the journeys people have taken as a result of this simple question. When they eventually get to the bottom of the “whys” they suddenly see that if they solve the root-cause issue, all of the adverse symptoms above will evaporate – including poor retention rates.

Here’s another key punchline: quality improvement is “cheap” if everyone is focused on addressing root-cause issues. And it’s not just expensive when you try to fix symptoms, it can break an organisation – loading staff down with ever more bureaucracy and new initiatives that have no hope of producing sustainable improvement.

Success or failure

In 2017, my colleagues and I set out to use this same strategy at sector level. We’ve been reporting on the adverse symptoms in FE & Skills for some time, so last year our national survey asked providers: “So why’s that then?” The answers were fabulous. Incisive, considered, given with great generosity, and heartfelt.

The actual question we asked was: “Are further education and skills policymakers and stakeholders creating the conditions for success or failure?” We then asked respondents to identify which policy changes had helped or hindered their ability to be successful. The resulting in-depth study was formally published today, following a report by Tes earlier this month. It sets out 23 root-cause issues we need to solve to create the conditions for providers to be successful in producing outstanding outcomes for all learners.

We’ve all heard the phrase "systemic failure". It’s now time to create "systemic success". Let’s fill our glasses and clink to that.

Tony Davis is Director of The Centre for Creative Quality Improvement, a former HMI, and member of the Policy Consortium. Further information can be found at: www.ccqi.org.uk.

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