Training provision in the Third Sector: the case of Age UK

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.

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From Age UK’s annual report for 2014

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.

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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’.

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One of the more damning findings

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.


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