Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI)


  1.1  The Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) is a product of the Learning & Skills Act 2000. An executive non-departmental public body (NDPB), it is mainly the result of a merger of the inspection remits of the former Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) and the Training Standards Council (TSC). To their work was added adult and community learning from Ofsted and a wide range of wholly new duties, including the inspection of Ufi learndirect, new welfare-to-work programmes funded by the Department for Work and Pensions as they came along, such as Workstep, and commissioned work for private businesses which do not use public money to train their workforces, and for the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Department of Health. The remit of the ALI can therefore be summarised as comprising:

    —  Welfare-to-work;

    —  Workforce development; and

    —  Community Renewal.

  The scope of this remit extends to learning carried out by every adult over the age of 18 who is not in higher education, and everyone training at work over the age of 15.

  1.2  The formation of the ALI four years ago was a substantial piece of simplification and clarification of regulatory arrangements. It involved winding-up FEFC and TSC and transfer of staff to a new, built-for-purpose national administration centre in Coventry, which opened in May 2002. Seventy-three inspectors and 35 other staff transferred from the predecessor organisations to ALI, which now has 248 staff in all, mostly home-based around England. In a number of cases, the transfer entailed relocation from Oxford to Coventry. The government's intention in selecting Coventry as the centre for ALI was to create a national "campus" for post-compulsory learning and skills. The Learning & Skills Council (LSC), BECTA and, now, QIA are based in the city.

  1.3  The one area where the new arrangements were not simpler was inspection of further education colleges. Instead of FEFC inspecting the whole organisation, the new Act introduced delineation of inspection remits by learners' ages, so that Ofsted holds responsibility for 14-18s and ALI for those who are 19 plus. Ofsted was given powers to "direct" and report upon all college inspections where its remit overlapped with that of ALI. All these inspections are conducted jointly using the Common Inspection Framework introduced by ALI and Ofsted in 2001 and revised in 2005. Joint inspection of colleges comprises around 23% of ALI work and a fraction of Ofsted's work. Joint working has been reported as "seamless" by colleges. ALI provides half of the lead inspectors for general further education colleges and 60% of the inspectors. Higher education in FE colleges remains outside these arrangements; the responsibility of QAA.


  2.1  The ALI is regarded as a success by its sponsors in government and its customers. Its four annual audits by the National Audit Office have all been unqualified, with no recommendations for improvement in the Management Letter for 2004-05. ALI risk management is seen as exemplary. The organisation has made a planned total underspend of £6 million on an annual budget of under £30 million in the past two years and is on target to return £1.5 million in efficiency savings to DfES and DWP in 2005-06. (Grant expenditure £26.7 million in 2005-06.) ALI achieved the Investors in People national standard 18 months after start-up. It is an Investor in Excellence (2005) and a finalist for the Midlands Excellence award for the best-run business in central England. It was national runner-up to Prudential Assurance for Best Practice in a Fit-Out Project for its headquarters building (2003); winner of the best Public Information Publication for the chief inspector's annual report (2003); winner of the CIPFA/PricewaterhouseCoopers award for Public Accountability and Reporting (2004); winner of the Best (Car) Fleet Manager (2003) and Best Place to Work in Information Technology (2005). An independent staff survey by MORI placed the ALI in their top 10 organisations nationally, on a range of measures of good management, well above both the public sector and the private sector norms.

  2.2  The ALI conducts around 1,200 provider inspections a year, plus a number of survey reports. Recent notable examples of these have been Safer Training (March 2005), a study of welfare arrangements for recruits to the armed services in the wake of the deaths at Deepcut; Building the future: skills training in construction and building services (May 2005); The costs and benefits of ALI inspections (June 2005); and Aspects of vocational education and training in Australia (August 2005). Survey reports are often published electronically and distributed with the ALI's monthly newspaper, Talisman.


  3.1  In a recent survey, over 85% of providers said that their work had improved after ALI inspection. Respondents said that between 40% and 90% of their improvement was directly attributable to the inspection and its findings.

  In response to the current public consultation on the future of ALI, many favourable comments have been made by customers:

    "Members indicate they see no reason to change their previous position of strong support for ALI as an independent and separate inspectorate. Employers see little value in joining it to Ofsted. We urge you to keep the inspectorates for workplace training and education separate and focused on their key challenges."

Sir Digby Jones, Director General, CBI

    "The ALI should be retained. It provides a thorough inspection of training providers and disseminates best practice relating to training. The ALI's remit of activities, incorporating both inspection and dissemination of best practice, should be preserved. Given the ALI's strong performance, one has to question the rationale for initiating radical reform."

Mike Harris, Business and Education Policy Adviser, Institute of Directors

    ". . . There is no advantage in bringing the ALI into the new body. It should be retained as a separate inspectorate. It is vital to have a separate group of inspectors, knowledgeable about the adult work-based learning route and understanding the very different way it works, to help providers through the inspection process and develop the quality of work-based learning."

Graham Hoyle, Chief Executive, Association of Learning Providers

    "While we agree that Every Child Matters, we would argue that every adult does too. NIACE particularly values the approach to inspection adopted by the ALI—their role has been that of `critical friend' without any loss of rigour or independence."

Alan Tuckett, Director, NIACE

  3.2  These views were echoed by employers, learning providers and other stakeholders, who participated in a series of focus groups run by consultants on behalf of the DfES. Reporting in October 2005, the consultants described inspection as necessarily resembling an iron fist in a velvet glove: "something that ALI appears to wear with grace".


  4.1  In addition to the colleges, the adult learning and skills sector consists substantially of private or voluntary organisations, receiving a contribution to training on the basis of contracts, mainly from the Learning & Skills Council (LSC), Jobcentre Plus and the European Social Fund. Some of them, notably employers, could readily withdraw from their participation in government-assisted training, and thus a significant part of their contribution to the national skills strategy, if ALI's work failed to add value to their activities. The fact that ALI does add value is reflected in a trebling of the numbers of apprentices since the TSC was launched in 1997, as well as in plaudits from companies with a worldwide reputation for quality, such as BMW and Rolls-Royce. The proportion of work-based providers rated inadequate has been driven down from 58% in 2001-02, to 25% in 2004-05 and under 10% in the early part of the second ALI inspection cycle, begun in April 2005.


  5.1  ALI adds value by:

    —  Deployment of 10 regional link inspectors, working with the main funding bodies to tailor each inspection to provider performance and development needs.

    —  Publication of a monthly magazine, Talisman, praising achievement and good practice, demonstrating that excellence is attainable (7,000 subscribers).

    —  Rigorous inspections, clearly indicating where each provider stands on the way to excellence.

    —  Operation of Excalibur, a good-practice website receiving nearly 30,000 hits a month of an average 15 minute duration, as well as publishing an "Inspection Toolkit" and offering workshops on improvement to providers in partnership with the Learning & Skills Development Agency (LSDA).

    —  Operation of the Quality Champions awards for providers' quality managers, in partnership with the Chartered Management Institute, and leading eventually to postgraduate awards in quality assessment (already available to ALI inspectors), validated by the University of Warwick.

    —  Publication of clear, graded reports, six weeks after inspection, with overall performance attested by a certificate for each provider achieving grade 3 (satisfactory) or above (gold award for grade 1, silver for grade 2, bronze for grade 3).

    —  Operation of the Provider Development Unit, through which inspectors seconded away from inspection for up to two years, work in collaboration with the funding bodies to turn round weak providers.

    —  Commissioned inspections for bodies which are not subject to statutory regulation, which earned £1.7 million towards ALI's overhead in 2004-05. Business is said to spend over £20 billion a year on training; government departments a great deal in addition, for example the MoD spends £4.5 billion each year.


  6.1  The ALI Board understands the central proposition of the consultation document to be that:

    ALI would merge, becoming a part of an "enlarged Ofsted", which would remain a non-ministerial government department and be commonly known as "Ofsted", with a single chief inspector working to a newly-created Board. The formal designation of the enlarged body would be something like "the inspectorate for children and learners". It appears that ALI's quality improvement work would remain outside the enlarged body, limiting its functions strictly to statutory regulation.

  6.2  Although used to working with Ofsted and respecting its work, the ALI Board has strong reservations about this proposal on the grounds that:

    —  The disparate scales of Ofsted and ALI, with the former roughly eight times the size of the latter, would in effect result in a takeover rather than a merger, with a resulting loss of focus on adult learning and business.

    —  The resistance being found among employers to the proposal could, if it is persisted with, lead to their effective withdrawal of support for the national skills strategy.

    —  No effective cost: benefit study has been conducted, with work commissioned by DfES from one of the major international accountancy practices in 2004 suggesting that any savings would be nullified through transition costs for between four and nine years after merger.

    —  A merger on the terms proposed would disrupt the learning and skills sector, much as did the changes between 1999 and 2001, setting back the quality improvements now coming through.

    —  The proposed inspectorate for children and learners is at odds with the consequences of Every Child Matters at local level, where in most local authorities, children's services (including compulsory education) are now usually separate from adult services. It is also at odds with the proposed assignment of CSCI's work in adult social care to the "health" inspectorate, rather than the learning and skills inspectorate.

    —  The cultures of the two organisations are so different as to make true merger difficult to achieve, consequent on the different types of customer each one serves.

  6.3  The ALI Board strongly supports the government's drive towards deregulation and self-regulation of business. The indications are that an "enlarged Ofsted" would have increased regulatory powers. ALI finds it hard to see how increased regulation (which may well be appropriate for schools and child protection) can co-exist with reduced regulation for business, in a single unitary organisation.

  6.4  ALI suggests that there has been inadequate opportunity for clear formulation of the policy objectives which the proposed merger seeks to meet. It also suggests that the complexity and number of policy strands involved implies that there might be several practicable ways to achieve "best fit", rather than the stark choice between merger with Ofsted and the status quo which has been presented for consultation. An adequate regulatory impact assessment depends on full consideration of, and consultation upon, a range of options for change, rather than just one. The ALI Board does not believe that the status quo is ideal and does not cling to it. Instead it seeks creative ways forward which also save money and disruption and which reduce the risks to employer engagement presented by the current proposal.

  6.5  The Board believes that a number of the characteristics of ALI's current operation, including governance closely following that used in business under the Combined Code, and the co-location of quality assessment and quality improvement in order to raise standards, are essential features of the inspection regimes of the future. It believes that while there might be exciting opportunities for improving public services if ALI, Ofsted and CSCI were to be brought together, these will be realised only if there is a true merger, with the best features of all three organisations coming together to form a new body. That is not likely to be achievable under current proposals and the Board therefore opposes the proposition described in the consultation document.

October 2005

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