Age UK is a highly respected voluntary organisation, which lobbies and campaigns on behalf of older people.It also provides services such as befriending, information and advice, runs a radio station, promotes volunteering, and funds research. To quote its own annual report, Age UK is “dedicated to helping people love later life”.
As part of that aim, Age UK provides quite a wide range of education and training. One of its core aims, according to its articles of association, is that of ‘advancing education’, with a view to building the capacities of older adults and improving the skills and knowledge of those who provide services.
As well as helping older adults learn new skills (from self-care to Skype), Age UK offers training services to employers such as health service and social care bodies, and it also runs its own programmes, including apprenticeship schemes and updating courses for professionals.
This adds up to quite a sizeable operation. In 2014, for example, Age UK estimated that it raised over £10 millions through its training activities – equivalent to almost a quarter of the £46 millions that it raised from its much more familiar voluntary activities. In 2014 it had some 3,500 registered learners, of whom two-thirds were pursuing apprenticeships.
This is an impressive level of activy, confirming that third sector organisations like Age UK are important players in our increasingly flexible market for training and adult learning. But according to the government inspectorate, the quality of Age UK’s training and education is not what it should be.
Age UK’s most recent Ofsted report covers an inspection that took place last November. The inspectors reported many failings that included low completion rates, widespread variations in attendance rates, a failure to challenge learners, poor monitoring of progress, patchy feedback, and, not surprisingly, poor overall management and leadership. They concluded that ‘This is an inadequate provider’.
In fairness, some of the judgements could apply elsewhere. In a high-stakes assement regime, it is probably common to find – as the report notes – that ‘many trainers focus overly on assessment criteria and not enough on helping learners develop good vocational work skills’.
Many colleges and a growing number of universities could similarly be described as suffering ‘rapid turnover of training instructors and delays in the recruitment of replacements with the appropriate skills’, leading to ‘a decline in teaching standards’.
And Age UK is certainly not the only provider where ‘Reports from managers to supervisory boards focus too heavily on financial targets and reports from external awarding bodies, and not enough on the quality of provision’.
Ofted also recognised some strengths, including good pastoral care and strong links to the labour market. Overall, though, the report raises significant concerns over the quality of training in one of our largest voluntary organisations whose prime concern is improving the quality of later life.
Like a number of other charities, Age UK has handed responsibility for much of its training activities to a semi-commercial trading arm, Age UK (Trading) CIC. I can’t help wondering whether keeping training at arm’s length in this way, while financially advantageous, has led to a weakening of accountability and diluted the focus on Age UK’s main aims.
The charity has said that it will address the concerns raised by Ofsted, but perhaps it also needs to look at the factors that created the problems in the first place. Meanwhile, if the UK is to move still further in the direction of a marketised system of adult skills development, some way has to be found of ensuring that learners do not lose out as a result of poor quality provision.