The dark side of the training industry: tackling quality failures

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

3 thoughts on “The dark side of the training industry: tackling quality failures

  1. I haven’t yet committed the time nor the 77 euros to read ISO 29990, but presumably it is more substantial than some of the earlier standards for services which were preoccupied with process. Australia is recruiting numerous inspectors to investigate apparent failures of quality or standards in vocational education, but little progress can be made while the standards vacuously specify only ‘outcomes’.

    In Australia much progress would be made by including teachers in the development and monitoring of standards, who have been systematically excluded from these processes in vocational education.

    • As ever, these are good points. However, the experience of including teachers and lecturers in developing and monitoring of standards in the UK has not always been happy. We weren’t exactly mourning in the streets when Lifelong Learning UK was dismantled, and as for its predecessor (Further Education National Training Organisation), the less said the better. What I learned from this experience is that we need to develop mechanisms for involvement that are not simply tokenistic and selective.

  2. Like Gavin, I haven’t read them either and the devil will be in the detail – particularly the detail of how they relate pedagogy to subject content. But, if they are anything like other ISO’s (e.g. the 9000 series), they will be rooted in a ‘process compliance’ model with limited context requirements. The big downside, if I am guessing right, is that the accreditation is based on a documentary audit trail which is a) not developmental (it audits the status quo) b) expensive to operate.and c) reduces flexibility and adaptability and encourages standardisation. This would drive small providers out of business (those few that survive the kinds of contracting regime recently introduced in England) who can’t carry the compliance overhead and encourage a cookie-cutter shape to all provision. I think VET would be the poorer if monopolistic suppliers of identikit provision were dominant.

    that said, the buyers/consumers do have a problem in finding the quality needle in the provider haystack and we’ve plenty of evidence of training purchasing decisions being whimsical or just uninformed (I use a fast food analogy here – it tasts nice, it costs a lot but it isn’t very nutritous..) Here (CUREE) we have worked up a model targeted specifically at CPD providers (rather than trainers in general) which focusses on the 6 characteristics which the international evidence shows us leads to positive outcomes for learners. We have tried to make it relatively light touch, NOT driven by bureaucratic self-evaluation, scaleable – and affordable. I’m not suggesting, BTW, that this is some kind of substitute for ISO but I think it, and approaches like it, might be more fit for purpose.


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