Pursuing external accreditations gave Preston College employees a voice

The further education provider saw staff satisfaction jump after it set its sights on a better Ofsted rating

Credit: Stephen Williams

The landscape in further education is ever changing, says Gill Thornton, head of HR at Preston College. “It’s not well funded, so we’ve had to be creative and make things happen with limited resources,” she says.

So when the time came for a drastic change of direction for the college in order to salvage its dropping Ofsted rating, Thornton and her team had to work even harder, with a new people strategy core to the organisation’s turnaround plans.

Almost a decade ago in 2013, the college improved from an Ofsted rating of ‘Requires improvement’ to ‘Good’. However, a second visit in 2016 saw it drop back down, having failed to demonstrate a “strong trajectory” during the time between inspections, explains Thornton. With the college setting its intention to return to ‘Good’, Thornton wanted to inject energy and new thought processes into the organisation, and introduced a host of measures designed to improve the working environment.

Part of this involved introducing a culture of ‘no blame’, whereby staff are encouraged to share the things they’ve done right, rather than focusing on what people have done wrong. The college also took its teaching back to basics, introducing formal lesson plans and encouraging staff to learn from each other. “We looked at our best practitioners and set up opportunities, such as observing ‘masterclass lessons’,” Thornton explains. It also organised ‘walkthroughs’, where staff literally walked through teaching or practical skills and development sessions and provided feedback on whether the work met corporate standards.

At the same time as work to get back to a ‘Good’ rating was getting underway, Preston College had also signed up to be an earlier adopter of Investors in People (IIP)’s new framework. Thornton drafted an “aspirational” paper, which detailed the college’s hopes of achieving Silver standard under the new framework by March 2017, and the Gold standard by March 2020. “We set up an IIP task group across the organisation’s different tiers, so we had voices from every part,” she explains. “That helped in doing a self-assessment and acting as champions.”. 

According to Thornton, the dual goals of IIP accreditation and Ofsted improvement supported each other: “There was the vision for the whole college to get our ‘Good’ back, and a lot of energy around the voice that would be given to staff through the IIP, so that all came together at the same time,” she explains.

An added challenge during this time was a restructuring, through which the organisation decided to stop offering A level courses in the school year 2014-15. “Our raison d’être has always been on the vocational and training side,” Thornton explains. Her team worked alongside the union every step of the way to develop the “best scenario” for the college in making the transition, and was also supported by the union during staff consultations, yet some staff “didn’t see themselves aligning to our new brand” and subsequently chose to leave, she says. 

After two years of investment in its people, culture and working practices, the college’s ‘Good’ Ofsted rating was reinstated in 2018 following an early inspection, and it was awarded its Silver IIP accreditation in March 2017 – with 40 per cent of the evaluated areas already meeting the Gold standard.

Yet having met her initial goals for Ofsted and IIP ratings, all while managing a rebrand on the side, Thornton was still not done. In 2018, the college introduced a five-year plan to achieve a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating and pursue Gold IIP accreditation.

Four years into the plan, progress has been positive. Preston College was awarded Gold IIP accreditation in 2021 after the assessment – originally planned for March 2020 – was delayed. And it still has its sights firmly set on being ‘Outstanding’. “We’ve done a lot of staff development days about what exactly that would mean,” Thornton says. 

And while the college still does walkthroughs, they aren’t graded, and staff instead focus on having feedback conversations about what went well, which lets “creativity fly”, Thornton says, rather than allowing a fear of not performing.

The college’s journey to being ‘Gold and Good’ is also reflected in its staff feedback: in a workforce survey for the school year 2020-21, five of the six survey sections saw improvements. Levels of staff satisfaction ranged from 63 to 81 per cent in last year’s data, compared to between 48 and 61 per cent during 2018-19. In addition, almost 94 per cent of staff agreed the college is “well led and managed”: a 16 percentage point increase on 2018-19. 

Ahead of its current five-year plan ending in 2023, another iteration is being reviewed and, in the meantime, there will be a refresh of the organisation’s values. The college will “absolutely” be aiming for an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted rating, says Thornton, but she caveats that the aim is to be “outstanding in everything we do”, and not just for the sake of Ofsted.