This month we have been celebrating the official confirmation from QQI that our application for re-engagement has been successful. This is a significant milestone for our business and for our clients. As a legacy FETAC provider we have had an excellent and longstanding relationship with QQI and the wider Further Education (FET) Community. The re-engagement process which was triggered by the QUALIFICATIONS AND QUALITY ASSURANCE (EDUCATION AND TRAINING) ACT 2012 places mandatory obligations on all FET and HET providers to benchmark their operating standards against the standards as set out in the QQI Core Guidelines.
We are very excited to be amongst the front running FET Providers who have achieved QQI reengagement status. We worked extremely hard to ensure that our Quality Assurance was thorough, fit for purpose and robust in its functionality (not just a tick the box exercise). Currently (as of September 2019) there are six FET only providers Nationally that have achieved this standard.
The road to success:
We knew that the journey towards reengagement would present some significant challenges not least of all would be our ‘blind spots’. One of our expert advisors said if you think you have your QA perfected check again, and again and again…..and this was probably the best advice that we received. The option to check and recheck progress was built in to the application as QQI offered a ‘gap analysis’ (GA) tool to assist at the early stage of the process. In total, our process was completed in 5 stages.
- We attended a number of pre-application briefings with QQI and a broad critical look at academic operations
- We carried out a formal self-evaluation (2017/18) – informed by point 1 above
- We completed a Gap analysis using the QQI (GA) tool/s prior to completing our application
- We completed the application form & formally signed off on our newly structured Operations Manual
- We presented our QA documents and answered questions during the Expert Panel site visit
Looks like quite a neat package right? Yes and no; yes in that QQI provided all the necessary resources required to successfully reengage, including access to advisory personnel at every stage of the process. This also included face to face meetings where experts were on hand to advise on areas of the application that needed to be clarified. On the other hand, our QA application needed to 100% reflect both the academic and corporate functions of the business in very significant detail. With this in mind we carried out a forensic analysis of the business using the guidelines provided and trusting in our own instincts and our combined professional experiences. We had a great team around us and this in itself was a fantastic asset; as any successful QA system relies heavily on those who are tasked with the day to day operations of the business.
Fine Tuning the Operations Manual
The operations manual quickly became the central player in our application. We had been working towards a fully functioning Ops Manual for the previous two years but never quite getting it finished to the standard we desired. Completing the operations manual was one of the welcome outcomes from the reengagement process – finally we had no choice….it was a necessary part of our application. We built the manual step by step, document by document, procedure by procedure. We started in January and our application was due in March so applying a Lean Mindset to the process was essential – no time to waste or to get sidetracked by minor details. Checklists were made, tasks assigned and expert help sought when needed. We made a quick trip to QQI towards the end of February to gain some feedback and to check if we were on the right track – this consultation was very positive and gave us the encouragement we needed to take the project over the line. The Ops Manual was completed by the end of February and then we tackled the application form (Mapping Exercise).
The Mapping Exercise:
This was essentially the re-engagement application form which forced us to test the effectiveness our QA system and our Ops Manual. Therefore this was not typically a case of complete the application form and then ‘we’re done’…. We would complete a section and each time we encountered a ‘gap issue’ it was back to the drawing board and either bridge the gap or assign a task to our ‘to do list’. Finally in the middle of March things looked like they were coming together; needless to say, some of the stickier issues were left until last often taking longer to resolve.
Pressing the Button on the Application:
There came a time after numerous checks and rechecks where we decided that in our eyes we were ready to submit our application to QQI for screening. The screening stage was relatively uneventful with a selection of questions returned to us for clarifications. Then the waiting began…. The application would be reviewed by the expert panel but first of all the expert panel needed to be convened. We were consulted during this process with reference to potential conflict of interest and again we felt that QQI were very supportive and open to consultation in this regard. Once the panel was convened, and introductions were made, the process accelerated from this point onwards. One week before the site visit we received a number of questions from the panel which we responded to promptly.
The Expert Panel – Site Visit:
It took about 8 weeks from the application date at the end of March to site visit at the beginning of June. We had a four person panel with a broad range of professional, academic and legal expertise. Recognising the expertise of the panel members was an important part of the process as this gave us an opportunity to address the dreaded ‘blind spots’ and of course welcome any additional words of wisdom that might be offered up by the panel members. We had received a schedule for the site visit and the order of the visit was set out in advance. We gave a brief presentation at the beginning of the day and following this for the remainder of the day we answered questions about our application – the panel’s main interest was to assess how the items described in the mapping exercise/operations manual were applied in practice. There were highlights and lowlights throughout the day. Times when we were in flow and times when we felt more than a little overwhelmed – this is how it’s meant to be we told ourselves…this is the final hurdle. The panel were what could best be described as ‘tough but fair’ which allowed for a healthy two way exchange of information. On reflection (especially after we read their very accurate recording of the day) we found this to be an illuminating experience and one that could only enhance the academic profile of the business moving forward. The panel members were very generous with their summative feedback. During the che concluding session the panel indicated that there were 3 mandatory areas which needed to be revised before a recommendation for reengagement would be considered. They had two choices: they could set a 6 month timeframe (if the issues were significant) or they had the discretion to set a 6 week timeframe for mandatory issues that they felt could be resolved in this shorter timeframe. The panel consulted with QQI and we were offered a 6 week timeframe to revise the 3 areas and we got to work again…The entire process is transparent and the report is available to view on the QQI website.
“Multiple examples of good practice in teaching and learning were provided by management and training staff during the meeting and site visit with the provider. The provider’s teaching staff outlined practices that were indicative of learner-centred pedagogy. The passion of management and training staff in terms of supporting the development of their learners and facilitating progression really shone through in the discussions. The provider uses platforms such as SharePoint to compile and share teaching and learning resources and there is a tutor handbook” – Panel Report – July 2019 Page 22
Despite annual leave looming and an elective surgery we completed the three mandatory recommendations and resubmitted our application in July. Miraculously despite the holiday period, our panel was able to reconvene in July/August and this time we communicated via Skype. This meeting was very short and we were commended for a ‘top level response’ to the panel’s recommendations. We received notice later in the day that the panel were unanimously recommending our application for reengagement to the Programmes and Awards Executive Committee (PAEC) for a scheduled meeting in September 2019. One more hurdle….This waiting period was probably the hardest especially as we had a week or two to wait after the PAEC meeting before we received confirmation that the PAEC committee had accepted the recommendation of the expert panel. Last week we received our official confirmation from QQI – nice to finally have it in writing.
“The provider is experiencing success in terms of supporting businesses within their region to facilitate their employees’ professional development. This newer area of delivery involves a different cohort of learners. Emphasis is placed on research based practice, and the provider cited useful sources such as the Harvard Business Review for keeping up to date especially in the area of leadership. Learners in employment are keen to utilize their learning to improve professional practice” Panel Report – July 2019 – Page 22
I have been asked to speak at an upcoming QQI networking event about our reengagement experience and I hope to offer some practical advice to aspirant reengagement applicants. I would hate to exit the process and not have considered the lessons learned – reflective practice is key to maintaining a solid, fit for purpose QA system. So I’ll end with a few key takeaway learning points:
- Read the instructional material before taking any action – use the tools; there are definitely no shortcuts here.
- Critically analyse your business and your QA system from a 360® perspective – be harsh and if possible apply a Lean mindset.
- Don’t assume you know everything (this isn’t possible) seek expert help for areas you are unsure about.
- Listen to the advice given and more importantly listen to the questions asked by the evaluators – there were a few questions asked in the screening and preview stages that we should have paid more heed to; this could have saved time in the end – the clues were there (but we had our blind spots too).
- Accept critical feedback – this can only enhance the process continuous improvement.
- Be prepared to defend areas of your QA that may be scrutinised by the panel – there were several instances where our message didn’t translate very well in the mapping exercise – the Q&A session was a useful platform to explain or clarify to the panel.
- “Own it” & be proud of your business – for us, the panel visit was an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to QA and our professionalism. By the end of the site visit we believed that we had given a good account of our business and we also felt that panel members really ‘got’ what we are about and this, for us was the end result we were hoping for.
- Most of all remember that QQI reengagement is a Quality Mark and is an indicator to our clients and customers that our business is operating in line with National and International best practice FET standards.
“It was very clear from the site visit and meeting the management team and trainers that the ethos for programme delivery is learner centred. A strong commitment to supporting learners across all the provider’s programmes was evident from the team. The approach is for tutors to make themselves available to learners including after sessions are concluded, and learners are also encouraged to submit draft work for formative feedback. There are dedicated email addresses for learners to submit queries remotely” Panel Report July 2019 – Page 26
I hope you find this blog interesting and if you are planning to re-engage with QQI in the near future it may be of some assistance. Full details of our QA system is available on our website at www.newlinkstraining.com