Intraining adds commercial quality to an FE success story

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Newcastle College raised eyebrows when it picked up the pieces of training giant Carter and Carter. But Alan Thomson finds that it's now a UK-wide player

Private providers can get narked when Ofsted annual reports show that the quality of training delivered by commercial firms is not, over the piece, as high as that delivered by further education colleges.

They argue that the overall results are skewed by the fact that in any inspection round, Ofsted visits a significant proportion of providers that are new to the market and are still bedding in their quality-management systems. The poor scores of these providers tend to drag down those of more established training firms, they say.

Yet, while there is no doubt validity in the argument, it is undermined to an extent by the achievements of one of the country's most successful commercial training providers, Intraining Group. Part of the Newcastle College Group, Intraining received a grade 1, or "outstanding", report from Ofsted last August.

The inspectorate said: "Intraining is highly effective at improving the rates of participants entering employment and improving job outcomes. It is particularly good at raising the rates of sustainable job outcomes."

The achievement is hardly astonishing - there is plenty of outstanding private provision in the country - until one remembers that Intraining had been formed from the wreckage of the collapsed training giant Carter and Carter just a year before the inspectors showed up last June.

Carter and Carter, the creation of the late Phillip Carter, had broken the mould for private-sector training, boasting 27,000 trainees on its books at the time of its collapse in early 2008 and delivering courses in centres across the UK.

For months following the untimely death of Mr Carter in a helicopter crash in May 2007, concern had grown over the company's viability and, more importantly, what would happen to its thousands of learners should it collapse.

When it eventually folded in March 2008, Newcastle College stepped in and took over the bulk of Carter and Carter's former operations.

It was an audacious move for the college, increasing its turnover overnight by something like 60 per cent. It also gave the college national reach since Carter and Carter had centres across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Some people thought the principal, Jackie Fisher, had over-reached herself, having already raised eyebrows in 2007 when she oversaw Newcastle College's takeover of the then troubled Skelmersdale amp; Ormskirk College, an institution some 160 miles away from HQ.

Purchasing Carter and Carter was not, after all, simply a case of bolting a small work-based training arm on to a big college - these were two operations, not vastly dissimilar in size but with significantly different structures and cultures that had to be sewn together.

"There was a massive piece of work on integration to be done," said Jacqui Oughton, Intraining's head of quality assurance.

"From the very beginning, we had five broken companies that had been bought off Carter and Carter, but none of them had been absorbed into the former company, so they operated in silos.

"Parts of the company concerned with employability were very different to those doing apprenticeships, for instance. There was a vast range of activity that had to be brought together."

Added to this was the issue of embedding a common culture and ethos across the expanding Newcastle College Group, which now comprises four divisions: Newcastle College, Skelmersdale amp; Ormskirk College, Intraining, and the recruitment and training company TWL.

Quality was a particular concern as there was always the risk that the message on standards could be diluted as the college's operations grew.

"It was important that quality monitoring was built from the bottom up," Ms Oughton said.

"Teams are monitoring quality for their managers, and managers are monitoring and reporting to the senior management group, and I will then report to the executive board, who then report to the corporation."

This still left the challenge posed by Intraining's range of operations. It spans four different inspection bodies in England (Ofsted), Wales (Estyn), Scotland (HMIE) and Northern Ireland (Education and Training Inspectorate Northern Ireland). It is also inspected across eight different contract areas.

"Because of the breadth of our operations, we need to be continually inspection-ready," she said.

To ensure consistency of approach across the different parts of the Intraining operation, it has adopted a common quality and delivery framework.

"So even if a contract in Leicestershire operates in a slightly different way from one in Yorkshire and Humberside because of the different needs of clients in those areas, there is a template for quality to which everyone adheres," said Ms Oughton. "The key to our success is that regulation internally is robust and ongoing."

The success of Intraining will be of interest to the many providers - colleges and independents - who are currently reviewing their business options in the face of a prolonged squeeze on public funding.

"Other colleges could adopt this sort of model easily," Ms Oughton said. "But whether it works or not ultimately comes down to the quality of leadership and management."


30,000 learners a year

80 regional offices

1,100 staff working with more than 5,000 public and private employers across the UK

Clients include the Royal Navy, Primark, HSBC and Yellow Pages

Intraining Group comprises four distinct businesses: delivery of workforce development, including apprenticeships; employability training; consultancy services to employers and management; and brokerage services to employers.

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