Behind the Inspection Rating - Performance under the spotlight

Alliance Learning, North West/Learning provider inspection/July 2013

Micromanagement might have a bad reputation, but for Paul Cocker, operations manager at Alliance Learning, it has played a central role in the training provider's move from a satisfactory to a good Ofsted rating.

One of the most notable changes since Ofsted's last visit in 2010, he explains, is that the organisation has swapped paper for iPads running OneFile's assessment software.

"In the past, learners undertaking an apprenticeship would have had a paper-based portfolio," he says. "Now, all our assessments and portfolios are electronic. We can now see exactly what progress every learner is making at any point in their programme, whereas if it was paper-based it would be near impossible to collate that information. One of the key things this has allowed is the micromanaging of every member of staff.

"I don't want it to be seen as Big Brother, but everybody now knows there is no hiding place. We can performance manage every part of the assessment, teaching and learning journey, ranging from how long they spend at an appointment to what happens at the appointment."

Cocker says this shift in workplace culture did require some change management to implement. Training staff, who teach a range of apprenticeships to learners aged 16 plus, were informed about the implications of the new common inspection framework and how the electronic portfolios would be used to help meet those requirements. In addition, there were staff forums that gave employees a chance to have their say about the new approach.

"There was a lot of apprehension," he says. "Some of our staff have been working here or in our predecessor organisations for 30 years and had always used paper. Some of them had never used an iPad before. So it was a big learning curve."

It is not just staff that the provider now micromanages. "We micromanage our learners," says Cocker. "By using this technology, we can ensure learners are doing the things they need to do by the right timescales. Where learners aren't hitting those timescales, the system sends an email and that allows us to identify that in monthly one-to-ones with staff or go to the learners' employers and nip problems in the bud."

The results speak for themselves. When Cocker joined the organisation four years ago, the success rates for learners on its engineering courses stood at 54 per cent; last year, the figure was 84 per cent. The overall success rate for all of Alliance Learning's training programmes is 86 per cent.

"We've moved that figure up by 32 per cent in three years. It's a real positive impact and the electronic portfolio is one of the keys we use to drive forward achievement," he says.

Alliance Learning hopes to keep that progress going so that when Ofsted returns in 2016, it will gain an outstanding rating. "We have a vision for 2016," says Cocker. "Our overall aim is to be an outstanding provider and to become the preferred training provider in the North West for employers."

It is a big goal, but the organisation has already made some board-level changes that Cocker feels will help deliver on the ambition. Instead of acting as generalists, three board members are now the organisation's champions of teaching, learning and assessment; safeguarding; and equality and diversity. This, he says, means they are better placed to spot ways in which the provider can improve its work.

Fact File

Location: Horwich, near Bolton

Description: Alliance Learning is a private learning provider formed in 2001 by the merger of Bolton Training Group and CLEEA Training. It is a registered charity and provides courses including apprenticeships in areas ranging from health, social care and childcare to engineering. While based near Bolton, it runs courses and apprenticeships across the North West and beyond. The organisation is managed by a group of more than 50 member companies that include Warburtons Bakery.

Number of learners: 820 part-time learners aged 16 and over.

Ofsted reference number: 50387

Helpful Hints

  • Shut down for training. Every year, Alliance Learning closes its doors for eight weeks to give its staff time for continuing professional development. Operations manager Paul Cocker says it was a hard decision to make -costing around £200,000 to do - but adds: "If we don't train our staff, we will never achieve what we want to achieve."
  • Reach out to local schools. Ofsted has praised Alliance Learning's efforts to encourage girls onto its engineering courses, such as holding an open day at Bolton Muslim Girls' School. "It's about trying to break down those stereotypes," says Cocker. Training providers also need to encourage employers to think beyond the stereotypes. "People can apply for an apprenticeship with us, but at the end of the day, it is the employer that makes the decision about who to take on."
  • Individualise extra support. Ofsted found that young learners with additional support needs in maths, English and ICT achieve just as well as more able learners at Alliance Learning. Cocker says individualised support is what makes the difference. "The lessons we do are all individualised, it is not taught in the classroom," he says. "Also, all of our learning development officers have been trained on how to support learners and how to tailor the course to meet their needs."

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