Being adult about inspection

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
As a government report exposes serious failings in private-sector training, Ian Nash looks at challenges facing the new Adult Learning Inspectorate

COLLEGES can scream all they like about lousy or unfair inspection reports, but at the end of the day they have to live with them - that's the law.

However, if a private company takes umbrage, it can take its business elsewhere.

"And it will," says David Sherlock, chief executive of the Adult Learning Inspectorate.

Unless a company's workplace training is state-subsidised, there are few official inspection requirements. And even some who take government cash have ploys to get round damning inspection reports.

The classic move, Mr Sherlock says, is "phoenixing" - new training companies rising from the ashes of old ones that have been forced to close. The only give-away sign may be the name of a suspect director or two on the new board.

Inspecting private enterprise is a world apart from scrutinising colleges.

"Too aggressive an inspection style can even drive a new training provider to quit the business," he says. "But then, effective inspections provide companies with valuable performance data which many say they could not otherwise afford to buy."

And this makes the new ALI - and the Training and Skills Council it replaces next April - a key agent in employment and wealth generation, not just in training.

Monarch Airlines is a good example of a private company which took a chance on inviting government inspection of its training programme - a risk which paid off when the reports were good.

It gained a grade 1 from the TSC for aero-engineering and, with it, which as an official and comprehensive stamp of approval for training carries considerable clout within the industry.

"It costs pound;68,000 to train an apprentice - cash that need not be spent in this country.

"So, we then simply have to operate in an open and adult style, colleague to colleague, or they will back out of state inspections and take their business to the US.

"But there are too few Monarchs," says David Sherlock.

Nationally, more than pound;18 billion is spent on workplace training and yet only pound;6bn of this is inspected.

David Sherlock says he will not be happy until the whole of corporate Britain is signed up with his new inspectorate.

There are no official checks on much of our workplace training, he says.

"I want them all to ask to contract with us to be inspected. At present, we cannot know whether we are a good country for adult learning because we only look at one-third of it."

And much of what is inspected needs improvement.

The latest Department for Education and Employment consultation report "Practitioner Skills and Qualifications in Workplace Learning" shows that too many providers of vocational training are simply not up to the job (TES FE Focus, September 15).

It catalogues scathing TSC reports over the past 12 months which show significant shortfalls in staff training and skills among 5,100 vocational trainers in eight areas. Inexperienced staff, weak management and resourcing pressures led to poor planning, said the report.

Such concerns have been expressed for years by many of the 224 FE colleges involved in workplace training. They argue that while the colleges are accused of high spending, private trainers, doing it on the cheap have sacrificed quality.

David Sherlock must sort all of this out for next April when - under the new Learning and Skills Act - his inspectorate has to provide a level playing field for all inspections of adult learning - state and private.

In appointing the new inspectorate's chief last month, it could be argued that Education Secretary Blunkett and Prime Minister Blair had no choice but to pick David Sherlock.

The man virtually created his own job when chief executive of the TSC.

Inspection of private training was in a parlous state in the 1990s when the then Training Standards Advisory Service was charged with sorting it out.

"There was real scepticism about whether you could get consistent measures around the country and issue damning inspection reports on big industry.

"Could you get away with giving one of the big powerful multinationals a mere grade 4 on quality control?

"The answer was a definite 'Yes'."

In the TSC that succeeded the advisory council he and his chairman Nick Reilly (former chair of Vauxhall Motors) built what many say is a lean, efficient, tightly centralised operation with a remarkably dedicated staff.

When the ALI was proposed in advance of the Learning and Skills Bill more than 12 months ago, they were already preparing the ground, building a central computer information system that is the envy of the new college inspectorate in the Office for Standards in Education.

David Sherlock and Stephen Grix, chief inspector for colleges, agree over the way forward for the two wings of the new post-16 inspection regime created under the Act.

The inspectorate's new IT network (see box, left) was launched earlier this month - - more than two years in the making - and will be the system adopted by the ALI. David Sherlock is delighted with it and is confident, for example, that it will spot a "phoenix" operation instantly.

Two questions will underpin all his inspections, whether in college or industry: Is the contract delivered as promised? And is the individual learner acting as promised on that plan?

Inspections will impinge increasingly on colleges, given the extent to which they are involved in the New Deal and wider workplace initiatives.

David Sherlock will not pull his punches. "The biggest, most expensive part of the New Deal programme - full-time education - is the least successful in terms of jobs and other outcomes. That's regrettable."

Areas including Lewisham, south London, Newcastle and Southampton, he sees as "significant exceptions" and argues "too many people, in colleges and workplaces, see it as just another funding stream and do not do a good job.

Colleges must share responsibility for the five days a week, not just the one the trainee is in college."

All the inspections should result in an honest, constructive volume of information, warts and all, which the company or college can use as a starting point for improvement. And this, through detailed discussions with Stephen Grix, is exactly what OFSTED wants.

"I agree too with Chris Woodhead (chief inspector of schools), that the focus must shift to the learning context."

The new inspectorate will be a relatively small operation costing pound;20 to pound;30 million, compared with pound;200m for OFSTED.

Joint inspections will account for 10 per cent of David Sherlock's load, but just 1 per cent of OFSTED'S.

Nonetheless, the expansion is still considerable as the Training and Skills Council transforms itself into the new inspectorate.

With a chief executive, five directors, 120 full-time inspectors and 800 associates, it will have doubled in size by next April, taking on a commitment of at least 1,000 inspections in the first year. 'I want all training providers to

contract with us to be inspected. At present, we cannot know whether we are a good country for adult learning because we only look at a third of it'


THE NEW adult training inspection system is very powerful. If 70 hairdressers in an area were to be inspected, the training council or ALI would need two associate inspectors. These can be found at the click of a mouse.

The expertise required ranges from farriers and hairdressers to dentists and accountants. In the latest trawl for experts, Hull fisheries needed a deep-sea fisherman to advise inspectors. With so many small industries, often one inspector for the whole country is enough.

It is easy to forget what a controversial move the creation of a training inspectorate was: a challenge to big industry and a move from classroom to individualised inspection. "The Government consultation paper in 1996 said inspection should be conducted from the viewpoint of the individual learner," Mr Sherlock says.

"Now, with the New Deal, you have work-based learning and need to watch individual learners. The move away from class observation to individuals is the biggest reform to the inspectorate since it was created by Mathew Arnold," he says.

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