More than three years from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many FE (Further Education) providers believe they are still experiencing its negative impact on their delivery and management of learning. During Advanced’s recent online Ofsted Roundtable with Beej Kaczmarczyk and Tony Allen, almost 31% of attendees agreed, although 46% said they were not sure either way. This represents a sizeable proportion of UK learning providers and organisations that feel they have not been able to return to ‘normal service’ with any certainty.
This of course begs the question of what constitutes ‘normal service’ and the likelihood that providers can go back to the way they delivered and managed FE provision as they did pre-pandemic. Online and blended learning models now proliferate, and education technology has transformed many processes for the better. There are certainly benefits and drawbacks to the increased dependence on technology, but some education professionals are concerned that Ofsted’s current inspection framework is no longer appropriate in a post-Covid world.
In this online session, we discussed participants’ experiences of Ofsted inspections since the pandemic and considered, among other things, Ofsted’s own findings around post-Covid inspections.
Apprenticeship training delivery was inevitably affected for a number of reasons during and post-pandemic. Employer businesses experienced disruptions to varying degrees, with some unable to trade at all for periods during lockdown and bringing in-work training to an abrupt halt. In other cases, apprentices were not always released by their employers for out-of-work training days, slowing their progress and leading to delays in reaching end point assessment (EPA). This created an additional draw on resources for providers and was a particular issue for apprentices who found themselves helping to cover for absent employees in sectors including adult social care and healthcare, hospitality, and construction.
On and off-the-job training was also more challenging to co-ordinate because of the demands of social distancing and other factors, while the issue of achieving completion of standards for out-of-funding learners continues to be a problem in 2023, particularly for Independent Training Providers (ITPs).
Online and blended models
The rise of online learning during the pandemic had a massively transformative effect on the sector, this is now evolving into more blended delivery models. The inevitable financial pressures caused by lockdown and social distancing requirements forced providers to innovate and for the most part, has led to positive outcomes, but some providers are taking longer to achieve these than others. Covid has disproportionately affected some subjects too, as some may be effectively delivered online while others require the teaching of practical skills in a physical environment. Success varies, depending on many factors including the size of the provider, the curriculum, and the resilience of individual learners.
Ofsted’s main findings around the management of online learning suggest that the success of the transition depended on how well staff and learners planned their learning, and that varying degrees of IT competence were a significant factor. Some providers had already embarked on successful digital transformation and online delivery prior to Covid, and these achieved better outcomes than others, and were able to integrate systems and interactive resources more easily. One challenge that was beyond the control of providers has been around learner access to technology at home, as some lacked the required Wi-Fi and equipment to interact effectively.
The learner experience
Ofsted has reported that while many learners missed face to face contact, others found online delivery more convenient and less daunting than the classroom environment. For some, they were happy to spend less time travelling and therefore more time learning, while others became disengaged with their online learning and lost interest. Overall, lower level 1 and 2 learners struggled more with the motivation and discipline of online study than those at level 3, with some learners lacking sufficient skills and confidence to make the best of the available technology. There were differences in preference for live and recorded online sessions too. Not surprisingly, given the rapid switch to online delivery, some tutors were more adept in this environment that others and some were less effective at monitoring and checking how well their learners were engaging and progressing.
A framework fit for purpose?
Learning providers have encountered widely different attitudes from Ofsted inspectors who have visited since Covid, with some reporting a sympathetic ear and others being told that the pandemic was over, and they should “just get on with it”. Overall, though, Ofsted appears to have recognised the specific pressures and challenges for the learner experience and management online during and post-Covid.
There are however several areas where the inspection framework could be improved. It does not, for example, fit well with providers supporting learners with SEN and disabilities. Some of these learners begin at a quite different starting point, having had different educational histories and previous experience. This creates a challenge for providers in measuring and evidencing what they have delivered, for auditing and claiming extra funding. In some cases, providers report that it easier not to make these complex claims and absorb the additional costs instead.
Safeguarding is another challenge in the new online world, as the context of setting - college versus workplace, is a key factor. Providers and employers need to develop new protocols for safeguarding in live online sessions, where it can be difficult to see what is going on. Tutors don’t have the same opportunities to get to know learners and benchmark their usual behaviours, thus spotting changes that could indicate a problem.
It was also pointed out during the session that Ofsted is supposedly much less focused on data, in favour of what inspectors see in the classroom. They listen to what learners and employers tell them, specifically about how learning is taken from the classroom and implemented in the workplace. It is much more difficult to get a true picture of this in an online delivery setting. Ironically, data itself may be the key to overcoming this limited visibility. Providers can use specialist education technology solutions such as Advanced’s Smart Apprentices to help provide crucial data for inspectors that they may not be able to get from learners and employers in online and blended environments. These can provide insights into experiences and outcomes, as well as qualification achievement rates, attendance and much more.
For more insights into tackling inspection and to ensure your organisation is best-equipped for Ofsted, visit our Outstanding Outcomes Content Hub to find our roundtable with Beej Kaczmarczyk & Tony Allen, as well as our very well received Ofsted masterclass series.