“We were determined we were never going to go through this again” - adult education service’s journey from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’

Helen Wetherall, interim head of Norfolk County Council's Adult Education Service

Helen Wetherall, interim head of Norfolk County Council's Adult Education Service - Credit: Archant

Since its inception, Norfolk Adult Education has been offering people of all ages a chance to develop their skills, take the next step in their career or just try something new. However, concerns over the quality of the service were raised in January 2015 when it was rated as inadequate by Ofsted inspectors.

What followed was a turbulent time for the Norfolk County Council service.

A list of 180 actions was drawn up off the back of the report which included compulsory training for all tutors and a new system to embed English and maths into many of the subjects.

The shake-up was challenging and subsequently some tutors quit. However, many stayed and with a lot of hard work, combined with the leadership of the interim head of Adult Education Helen Wetherall, the service jumped two places in April 2016 when it was rated by Ofsted inspectors as good.

'It was tough – people's confidence had been knocked so they wanted some assurance,' says Helen, who joined the service as interim head in June 2015.

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'To the credit of the council, they said they were going to invest in this service and they put their money where their mouth was.'

Speaking about the initial report, Helen says the service had to acknowledge where it was at so it could move forward, but explains it wasn't every part of the service that was rated inadequate but it was that it 'didn't meet the threshold'.

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With a loan of £200,000 from the council's central budget, the first steps were to identify what the problems were and look at how they could be solved.

Helen says: 'The systems weren't robust – we needed an assiduous approach to quality.'

The changes weren't without their demands and through observations in the classroom, Helen says reports showed learners weren't getting what they needed and that she needed to initiate difficult talks with some of the tutors.

'There was a reluctance to say to a tutor in a classroom 'that wasn't a good enough performance'.

'The observations have got much tighter now. We've had some difficult conversations and implemented actions to improve revisits which have paid dividends.

'It's very tough turning round an organisational culture and its systems quickly. It takes commitment from the top. You have to make some difficult decisions,' says Helen.

'Some people wanted the cosiness to continue – they didn't want the fear and the worry or the difficult conversations so they decided it wasn't right for them.

'With respect, we helped them to make a positive decision about their futures, but others had wanted the changes for a long time and they're the ones we have now got in the service.'

The initial improvement plan contained 180 actions which the council worked through, giving itself just a year to complete them all.

Leading the changes was Helen, two assistant heads and a small team which was supported by the programme office.

'We had a lot of scrutiny to make sure we did deliver. Most of the pressure came from inside the service though. We were determined that we were never going to go through this again. We were in control and we were driving the agenda,' says Helen.

Some of the more significant changes included embedding English and maths into applicable lessons as well as offering guidance and support for students to encourage and challenge them along the way.

'Ofsted were very complimentary about the work we did here,' she says.

'We're encouraging people to improve their maths and English skills and that's absolutely what education is about.'

As part of the changes, leisure courses are now in the leisure stream which means they won't be assessed by Ofsted and are a separate commercial entity.

The service is also extending the availability of its non-leisure courses across the county to help meet learners' needs.

The whole restructure will be complete by August 1, 2016.

Moving forward, Helen says the adult education service is aiming to be awarded a rating of outstanding by Ofsted.

'We went for silver and now we're going for gold,' she says.

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