We have known for some time that failures in the quality of Britain’s training system are long term and pervasive. We should be clear: much training is excellent and worthwhile, for participants and funders alike. But there is also a shady segment in the industry, and at its darkest fringes, some so-called providers have bent the rules so far that they have claimed public funds for training that has not even happened. More routinely, some courses are inappropriate for the learners and industries they are supposed to serve.
Of course, the UK is not alone in this. Among others who have looked at quality failings in training, Leesa Wheelahan and Gavin Moodie in Australia have explored failings in public training that were associated with user choice and other competitive tendering of State Government vocational education contracts, as well as many serious failures of quality and standards of vocational and language training for international students.
Similar patterns can be traced here in the UK. On the one hand we have a government seeking to move away from public not-for-profit providers, and towards contracts with a range of commercial providers. On the other hand we have a fragmented supply side that has characterised by a few big private trainers (usually providing training alongside other business services) and a very large number of small providers, many of whom are many single operators, often women or retired professionals working from their own homes, as well as a large number of small companies, again often home-based, developing distance learning through the new technologies.
Many of us assume that private sector training is a lucrative business. But it is important not to be misled by – say – the eye-watering cost of a management development residential. One study in 2007 found that many private providers, particularly smaller firms and sole operators, were trading below the margins of viability. They are only able to survive because they cut costs so radically – for example, by using their living room as an office. In some cases, they also cut quality, or miss-sell their products.
Improving quality will largely depend on government. If the government continues with its policy of seeking to contract with the private sector, it needs to insist on clear quality standards. A number are now available that allow purchasers to compare basic standards, not just in the UK but internationally. An obvious example is ISO 29990, introduced in 2010 to specify basic benchmark requirements for those who provide learning services for non-formal education and training.
ISO 29990 was based on German standards, and has been widely welcomed in Germany and Austria. The European Association for Distance Learning has published a best practice guide to the implementation of ISO 29990. A new ISO 29991, for language education, is in development.
Has this development been much adopted or discussed in the UK? And am I right in supposing that something based on German standards is rather more likely to be worthwhile than something developed by consultants hired by our own Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – or one of BIS’s many quangos?
The ISO system has its faults, but it can be influenced and changed. It is also well-established and it is transparent. So why not start by insisting that all public funding for training should only go to those who clearly meet ISO standards? It could also serve as a guide to quality for the rest of us – including the Learning Professor, as he tries to improve his Portuguese. And yes, I’d include colleges and other public and not-for-profit providers, one or two of whom have cheerfully taken every opportunity to show that they cannot be trusted.
Of course, a set of standards doesn’t solve everything at a stroke. Some providers will busily tick all the boxes but fail to comply in practice. Others will already be performing well beyond the minimal standards, and the last thing they need is a new and intrusive regime of inspection. But I do think that a basic minimum set of standards should be a threshold requirement for public training contracts.
Beyond that, the challenge is to develop a high quality industry in a sector that is at present fragmented, unregulated and largely taken for granted. Any ideas?
Wheelahan, L & Moodie, G (2010) The quality of teaching in VET: Final Report and Recommendations, Australian College of Educators, available at http://austcolled.com.au/sites/default/files/quality_vetteaching_final_report1.pdf