24 March 2021

A reflection on collaboration on quality across post-16 education during the Covid-19 pandemic

Just over a year since lockdown was first announced in Wales, HEFCW, QAA and Estyn reflect on the post-16 sector’s numerous achievements, as well as the importance of collaboration in ensuring that the changing needs of the sector continued to be met, that quality and standards were protected and the overall student experience maintained.

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on all aspects of our lives, including on our ways of working.

For those working to support the post-16 education sector to meet the challenges of Covid-19, it provided opportunities to build on existing joint working relationships.

Organisations from across the higher education (HE) sector have collaborated on a number of issues including approaches to online and blended learning, supporting students’ mental health, and looking collectively towards the proposed Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER), while considering how the lessons learned from partnership working between the FE and HE sectors throughout the pandemic could be taken forward into the new commission.

The commonality of issues across the post-16 sector and the need for a joined up approach to address the challenges arising from the pandemic was clear from the outset, and was discernible from our various engagements with the HE sector.

For the first few months after the pandemic hit, Estyn focused on how providers were continuing to support wellbeing and learning through blended learning approaches within initial teacher education, adult learning in the community, youth and community work, further education and work-based learning. Estyn established a regular programme of engagement calls with providers and published brief insight reports or cameos of interesting practice from this period on their website. Estyn’s Annual Report included a thematic overview outlining how all the education and training sectors responded to the pandemic. More recently, Estyn published thematic reports on learner mental health and emotional wellbeing and remote and blended learning in the adult learning in the community, further education and work-based learning sectors.

QAA produced advice and guidance to support universities and colleges respond to the pandemic, with additional support provided through membership resources. Guidance covered a number of issues ranging from adapting assessments for online platforms, practice and lab-based assessment and work-based learning. QAA also published a blog looking at supporting students to develop transition skills during times of uncertainty.

HEFCW embarked on a blended learning project in partnership with Jisc, who provide digital solutions for UK education and research, which aimed to support the sector in developing high quality digital techniques and resources. The project had an enhancement focused approach, which echoed QAA’s work on digital learning. In December 2020, Jisc produced a summary of experiences and practices adopted by universities across Wales, to be shared, celebrated, and learned from as part of the Jisc-led learning and teaching reimagined project.

QAA began developing its enhancement work and liaised with HE providers in order to identify areas for possible collaboration. Themes included learning from Covid-19, learning from no detriment, the student voice, student engagement and capitalising on new innovations, for example in assessments. QAA has started working with the sector to facilitate collaboration and sharing of practice in these key areas. At the beginning of the academic year, the HE sector had been reporting that there was some confusion around what constituted online and blended learning. In response, QAA published taxonomy guidance in June 2020, which helped ensure clarity and consistency across the sector, and to support students to understand the learning experiences offered.

Developing bespoke online alternatives to enable groups of students on a variety of different courses to progress in their studies was vital, and engagement between the various organisations provided opportunities to share best practice.

Estyn continued to engage with initial teacher education (ITE) providers to support the development of the newly accredited programmes and to liaise with the sector to adapt approaches to the inspection of new ITE programmes for the new academic year. In 2020 HEFCW commissioned QAA to undertake a review of degree apprenticeships. QAA met regularly with HEFCW and the sector to discuss the development of the evaluation handbook, and Estyn was able to provide helpful input around work-based learning from their experiences inspecting higher apprenticeships in the work-based learning sector.

The three organisations also discussed approaches towards common issues faced by students and learners during the pandemic such as balancing childcare with studies and digital capability.

All partners welcomed the opportunity to share thoughts on the Draft Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill, which was consulted on in December 2020, and considered how lessons could be learned from similar approaches in other parts of the UK.

It is clear that when the experiences of these organisations in supporting various parts of the post-16 sector to deliver high quality education come together to share expertise and good practice, there are valuable benefits for the whole post-16 sector.

Estyn, HEFCW and QAA continue to meet regularly to discuss our respective roles and contributions in support of the post-16 sector and quality of education and training, and to share their responses to the pandemic. We are committed to continued collaboration, to ensure that students in Wales continue to receive a world-class, high quality student experience. 

David Gale, QAA

Meg Hughes, HEFCW

Jassa Scott, Estyn