Keeping a constant focus on quality through changing times

Dr Barbara Van Der Eecken, Director of Quality and Service Standards at the training provider Babington, explores the strategic and operational decisions the company made in response to the pandemic, while sharing some key examples to help you reflect on your current quality strategy and its impact.

Leadership in Babington, purpose, vision and values

Since David Marsh was appointed CEO for Babington in 2018, the company has gone through a transformation process which has led us to re-affirm our purpose, vision, and redefine our values. This took place throughout 2019 until we got to the point where there was genuine clarity about our strategic plan and everyone was working to the same purpose, which we titled: ‘Developing Better Futures’.

Additionally, we signed up to the following vision statement: “To be globally recognised as a valued and trusted partner unlocking potential through a bold passion for learning.” This gave us a strong platform with a focus on quality, especially when combined with our values:

  • curious
  • brave
  • determined
  • passionate
  • caring
  • trusted.

These values highlight that quality is at the heart of what we do, enabling us to successfully carry out our work and collaborate with colleagues. We all want the same for our staff, learners, employers, and communities, and our vision statement clearly highlights a bold passion for learning.

Questions to ask:

  • Do you consider your organisation’s purpose, vision and values when you are planning your quality strategy?
  • Did you focus on and demonstrate your company’s values before the pandemic?
  • Did these help colleagues to shape their response throughout?


Quality strategy, arrangements and cycle

When I refer to quality, I'm talking about the activities, processes and development points which cover the whole of the learner journey. It starts from the initial engagement to the induction and delivery of teaching, learning, and assessment (TLA). It includes pastoral support, along with the quality assurance and quality development side, which work hand-in-hand.

Having that information is only useful and impactful if we use it for constant development. Therefore, I was keen to align our strategy to the priorities that were set in Babington’s business plan and ensure we could achieve our targets.

First, we needed to define what was in the business plan. For example, what was it that we could bring to the table to support and achieve our goals? From there we could re-define the roles and responsibilities in the team. It was also about having clarity about ownership and accountability – who would contribute to those goals and who would collaborate on the targets and objectives?

In 2019, we could already see an impact on teaching, learning and assessment, curriculum design, and learner and employer feedback, and we listened and acted upon this. We knew that 2020 would allow us to fully implement the strategy, but little did we know what the year would bring. So, at the beginning of the pandemic, we all used that common purpose, ‘Developing Better Futures’, to make a difference in our sector.


Covid quality risk assessment: Changes and short/long-term adaptations

We had an absolute focus on our colleagues – without staff who have learners, customers, communities, and employees at the heart of it all, it would not have worked. Focusing on this helped, but how did it translate in terms of quality when the pandemic hit?

  1. Quality strategy, risk and assessment: First, we gave ourselves time to reflect.
  2. Consider and reshape the quality rationale: We stopped and revaluated the quality strategy we had put in place and the validity and risk assessment – was it still right?
  3. Review the plans and arrangement: We re-shaped the strategy, thinking of our quality rational.
  4. Shared the KPIs and calendar of activities: Planned from March until July.
  5. Deployed and collaborated: Moving forward, monitoring and reviewing.


Tools we used to have those conversations

We looked at the activities we wanted to achieve in a normal year, such as areas of planning and their frequency. We discussed what the changes were due to Covid-19 and what this meant. This could be in terms of planning, monitoring, teaching, learning and assessment. We then looked at every activity that we defined and checked whether the owners were the same as they were previously – during the pandemic people were taking on different roles and supporting the business in different ways or were furloughed, so who was going to own those activities? We created accountability KPIs, so everyone was clear about this.

Because everything was changing so quickly, we reviewed our calendar of activities and decided where to put things. We didn't want to lose sight of all the things we'd set out to do. We wanted to re-assure ourselves that if these events or deliverables weren’t going to take place when they were supposed to happen, that we had a clear rationale and an idea as to why we'd moved it to a different time, or why we increased the frequency.


Driving the quality agenda

We continue to drive our quality agenda, and although these points were already in our strategy, it highlighted six key priorities for us, including:

  1. Safeguarding and welfare.
  2. Collaboration.
  3. Promoting best practice and outstanding TLA.
  4. Driving continuous improvement.
  5. Delivering great outcomes.
  6. Governance.


These were all in no particular order and are equally important; however, safeguarding and welfare came to the forefront, along with collaboration and co-operation with other teams. It was critical that in these times, where we couldn’t meet in one place, that we could collaborate remotely and still promote best practice and outstanding TLA.

For some of our trainers and tutors this was a clear change; people have delivered classes and meetings face-to-face for years and we had to move them to an online, remote and highly flexible delivery. It was important to still focus on that and give tailored support.

We also wanted to continue to drive improvements, because obviously, so many things were changing and there were so many good things happening in the sector. It was actually quite a special time for continuous improvement, where we were all learning at the same time. By March 2021, we wanted our learners who had started with us to achieve their qualifications. Delivering great outcomes for all our learners is one of our priorities and some of our learners completed their whole programme during the pandemic.

Because things were changing all the time, robust governance was at the forefront of what we were doing. We wanted to keep checking and asking questions, scrutinising what we were doing and monitoring, checking, reviewing, as well as getting critical friends to look at our work.


Questions to ask:

What did you do during the pandemic that made a clear difference to how you supported:

  • Tutors/learners/apprentices/employers and communities?
  • How would you evidence this?

Our strategy was always to minimise disruption for our learners and to have clear communication with them on our website and across different channels, discussing the best course of action so every learner would be clear about what was happening. The delivery teams also knew about the plans and methods, so it was that collaboration which supported us.

During this time, we actually took on lots of new learners, both in apprenticeships, where we had sectors that were buoyant during the pandemic, but also in employability where people had lost their jobs and needed to upskill or re-train. Because we were so busy, it was more important than ever to listen to that feedback and take it on board while things were changing.


What learners said

There was a lot of uncertainty, but we wanted to offer an honest culture, communicate with our staff as much as we could and carry out a full organisation risk assessment. We also did a lot of networking in the sector and gathered insights from across the sector; it was like everyone coming together, and that was amazing.

We focused on developing the following:

  • Culture: Considered, conscious and honest approach through uncertain times.
  • Regular Covid-19 updates.
  • Whole organisation risk assessment.
  • Safe and sound team.
  • Networking and insights from the sector.
  • Shared our ideas, feelings and emotions and ensured we remained connected.

“The times were manic and taking time out to actually refer to our strategy and think through the situation and risk assess our focus, gave it appropriate priority in our thinking. We put some on pause, but did so as an informed decision rather than accidental.”
Francesca Hurst - Head of Quality and Service Standards

 

Reflection

Things weren’t always plain sailing, but throughout this time we:

  • became stronger and more inclusive with more communication
  • made the best of the expertise in the company
  • learnt quickly from our experiences, especially because Government guidelines were changing every day
  • stayed positive
  • slowed down to speed up
  • controlled the ‘controllables’
  • changed/reviewed – created new ways of working
  • created contingencies.

We put some things on pause and accelerated others, but that was an informed decision, rather than accidental and it reassured colleagues and gave stability in very challenging and changing times.

It was a time to reflect and a time to act quickly. I am very lucky to work in an environment where we put quality at the heart of everything we do, and our values really helped us to fulfil the quality agenda.


Six months on… (July 2021)

We have continued to build upon our strengths and focused on our six key priorities. We have fully embraced the remote working and delivering innovative sessions through the use of technology. Our learners have commented that they prefer our new blended approach to training, increasing their knowledge through a mix of one-to-one and workshop activities. Employers have also been very supportive in helping apprentices to develop new skills and demonstrate professional behaviours in a new environment.

Collaboration and a supportive and caring culture are still at the heart of what we do, and to better support colleagues and learners we have continued to focus on wellbeing with lots of activities, training and support offered around mental health.

Now more than ever, a focus on quality is key as we review 2020-21 to fully understand the impact of the pandemic over a whole academic year. We are stronger as a team and look forward to next year.


This article is a written version of a breakout session presented by Dr Barbara Van Der Eecken at the SET Conference 2020.

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