Work Based Learning In Wales: The Journey Towards Quality Improvements

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By Arwyn Watkins,
Chair National Training Federation Wales (NTfW)

What a journey it has been for all involved in the delivery of Work Based Learning in Wales. In this context I am referring to the two key strands of DCELLS’ contracted Work Based Learning (WBL) delivery, namely the Skill Build and Apprenticeship programmes.

There was a time when the start of a new calendar year cast really dark clouds over the whole WBL Network. This used to appear in the shape of a News Release from Estyn closely followed by the public launch of the Chief Inspector’s Annual Report.

I remember receiving a news release with the bold heading of EDUCATION AND TRAINING STANDARDS IMPROVE IN WALES – but work-based learning a cause for concern Embargo: 11.00am Monday 23 January 2006.

I already had engraved on my mind an image of the subsequent headlines on BBC Wales News on the Monday evening and in the Western Mail and the Daily Post the following day.

That was a reference point on this journey. It felt that there was no future for the delivery of WBL by the current contracted network of providers. At this point in time, there were 115 contracted providers of WBL, comprising 14% Local Authority, 20% Further Education and Higher Education Institutions and 66% Independent and Third Sector organisations.

The Education and Lifelong Learning Committee back in March 2005, when taking evidence from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for Education and Training in Wales in relation to the 2003-2004 Annual Report, was informed that the greatest concern for Estyn was the standards in WBL. Too few trainees had gained all the qualifications they needed to complete their qualification framework. This was then an area of focus for members to question the Chief Inspector in more detail and they certainly did express their concerns about WBL and its quality profile.

It became very apparent that we at NTfW really needed to take a close look at the evidence and establish a strategic approach to secure the future of WBL. The outcome of this action was to focus our energy and resources to establish a mechanism to build capacity for leadership and management to improve quality. It was very apparent that we needed to take action as a federation to secure high quality WBL.

In January 2006, Lord Ted Rowlands, NTfW president and I were given the opportunity to present evidence to the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee. This was not an easy task to undertake in the prevailing climate, given the facts that we as a sector were presented with.

We focused our submission on emphasising how aware NTfW was of the role and importance of WBL and the vital role it had to play in achieving prosperity, through enabling the economically inactive to enter employment and by improving the skills levels of the present and future Welsh workforce. The world has changed beyond all recognition since 2006 and so has the quality profile of WBL.

We also expressed how deeply concerned we were about the image and perception of WBL. Vocational learning had not enjoyed – and still does not enjoy – anything like parity of esteem with academic learning. We agreed to meet the challenge of changing such perceptions to establish WBL as a route for learners of ability, a route that offered individuals the opportunity to learn vital skills and, through those skills, to enjoy successful, financially rewarding and satisfying employment.

So what direct action did we take in a very competitive Network of providers who all realised that the status quo was not sustainable? The NTfW was successful in bidding into the Quality Investment Fund to develop a good practice handbook in Leadership and Management for WBL providers.

As the then vice chair of NTfW, I was tasked with establishing and chairing a steering group from the membership of NTfW who were able to share their identified areas of good practice within the development of the handbook. The steering group was strengthened by partnership organisations DCELLS, ESTYN and Fforwm. The establishment of this partnership for quality improvement was critical.

I believe that the best practice handbook that was produced as a result of this action taken by NTfW is one of the key milestones on the quality journey. It still needed to be distributed and the best practice contained within it showcased to the whole network of WBL providers. This was conducted by way of a roadshow that covered all the regions of Wales. The sharing of knowledge and expertise within a very competitive Network was, I believe, a first and most certainly not a last.

The introduction of the Provider Performance Review, which was introduced after consultation with NTfW in 2005 and viewed as a powerful quality tool to drive up quality and standards, was a key partner tool.

This journey is not one that can be undertaken at speed. You firstly have to establish the vehicle that you will use to take you on the journey and then secure the energy source, identify the driver and finally understand that not all the passengers will make the journey.

So we are now at the end of the current cycle of the Common Inspection Framework and just about to embark on a new journey. This will build on the best of what has been established through the sharing of best practice with the publication of a best practice handbook and a series of roadshows to distribute the message. This time Estyn are taking the lead on the development of the handbook in partnership with stakeholders including NTfW.

We remain committed to continuous improvement within the federation and do not underestimate the challenges ahead with a transformation agenda, a new approach to securing the future of WBL through tendering, at a time of economic uncertainty.

The WBL sector in Wales is responsible for delivering vocational skills to more than 60,000 individuals and the success rate on apprenticeship programmes is in excess of 70% – up by some 34% since 2004/05.

We recognise that quality in our service is not what we put into it but what the learner gets out of it. For the sake of you, the people, we need to get the balance right. All career advice and guidance must embrace apprenticeships, as this is a pathway that secured my success, financial reward and complete job satisfaction.

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