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Going further, together


Sixth form colleges are increasingly working with their local rivals to gather professional insight into ways to assess and improve their services. Now what they have learned about peer review has been distilled into a good practice guide, explains Godfrey Glyn.

When sixth form colleges were moved away from local authority control in 1993 to become independent further education colleges, they gained independence and autonomy but also found themselves under increased pressure from competition, inspection and harsher funding regimes.

In this climate, colleges began to develop peer review groups between their institutions with the aim of sharing good practice among staff in order to improve the experience and achievement of their students. By 2008 over 80 per cent of the sixth form colleges in England had adopted peer review in some form.

This summer, the Sixth Form Colleges' Forum (SFCF), which represents the 93 incorporated sixth form colleges in England, launched the SFCF Good Practice Guide to Peer Review. It draws together good practice in the sixth form college sector and will act as a catalyst for colleges to develop the work of their peer review groups.

A large variety of groups has been established across the country but the key features of the most effective are:

  • mutual trust

  • a common ethos and a clear understanding of the process by all involved

  • high quality training

  • effective management and administration

  • time for the scheme to evolve and for trust to be established across all institutions

The responsibility for fostering mutual trust lies with the college principal and senior leadership team. It is interesting to observe that some groups that have developed peer review to the greatest extent are in colleges where competition for students is also at its highest. Close geographical proximity and intense competition does not necessarily preclude effective peer review work; a lack of mutual trust certainly will.

Size matters

The size of peer review groups varies from two to 24 colleges. The majority are groups of sixth form colleges but several groupings contain general further education and tertiary colleges. One college has been working with a general FE, a tertiary and a specialist college.

There are considerable advantages in having a large number of colleges in the group but there are some disadvantages in growing too large. Geographical distance can restrict effective exchange of staff and increase the costs of travel and accommodation; it may be difficult to maintain a common ethos and a feeling of ownership by senior staff if the group has too many members or grows too quickly.

On the other hand very small groups can grow stale and risk becoming cosy rather than helpful and supportive.

In small groups senior staff will act as group managers. However, the advantages that come from larger group membership can only be realised through more formal arrangements which involve the appointment of a scheme manager/coordinator and some clerical/administrative support. Several groups now have such arrangements in place.

Clear protocols

Clear protocols and a common understanding of the process and potential outcomes are essential in order to build the trust across each level in the colleges. High quality training in the art of reviewing is also vital as it not only reinforces the shared ethos but provides a framework for professional dialogue and the development of skills that can have a really positive impact upon learning in the classroom.

Two themes run through most peer review groups: improvement through professional development for staff, and quality assessment through the validation of a self-assessment review.

Colleges have developed great diversity in types and forms of peer review. The most popular form has been the curriculum review, involving staff in a particular curriculum area. If it is part of staff development, visits to colleagues in other colleges will be carefully planned to focus on professional exchange of views and experience.

Many groups, such as the NORVIC group of colleges in the north and north east, organise joint staff training days and some groups provide joint management training courses that are tailored to the needs of their staff.

S7, a consortium of Surrey colleges, has a dedicated website that allows staff from the different colleges to develop contacts across the consortium.

In Hampshire there are over 20 curriculum and cross-college support groups which run alongside the larger peer review group and are organised or supported by two part-time staff who work for the 11 colleges in the partnership.

Training for middle and senior managers and governors is also provided under the partnership. Although perhaps not primarily focused on staff development, finance staff also regularly meet to discuss matters of mutual interest. It has led to them negotiating collectively with suppliers for services in areas such as insurance and payroll.

Staff in the colleges have said that really value the opportunities to share good practice that these arrangements provide.

Modeled on inspection

The other main area of peer review, quality assessment, resembles an Ofsted inspection with the aim of a similar degree of rigour but with the element of productive and supportive advice that is missing from the present Ofsted inspection regime.

CENBASE, a consortium of six colleges which stretches from Leicester to Colchester, says that the key is providing a rigorous critical friend who can bring to a college an external view of the self-assessment processes. Its three clear aims are to:

  • be a developmental process to support the host college, not a judgmental one

  • add value to the internal quality processes of the host college

  • provide professional development opportunities for those engaged as validators, both by working with another colleague and learning about other colleges

Subject reviews focus specifically on:

  • student achievements and standards

  • the quality of teaching and learning

  • management of the curriculum

All colleges use benchmarking data when analysing their data on student performance. They routinely compare data, at individual course level, on:

  • student recruitment and retention

  • success

  • pass rates

  • high pass rates

  • progression

  • attendance

  • learner satisfaction

  • added value

  • gender profile

  • ethnic background

  • previous school

Lesson observation data is also considered as part of the self-assessment review.

Perhaps the most commonly used national added value data is that provided by ALPS and ALIS but the databases developed by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), Ofsted, DCSF and so on are also now routinely used by colleges.

It is now normal practice for colleges to carry out their own internal quality reviews using a small team of staff who review a particular aspect of work within their own college. With training, a significant proportion of college managers can be involved in this kind of work which greatly increases the spread of good practice across a college. The work of the peer review group builds upon the experience gained within a college.

If arranged as part of a validation of the departmental self-assessment review, peer review may involve one or two experienced and trained staff visiting for two days to examine the self-assessment results, look at data, carry out lesson observations and talk to students and staff. On the second day a colleague experienced in inspections will provide support and help the reviewers to construct and deliver their feedback to both departmental and senior staff.

The curriculum-focused review is probably the most common but reviews can and do cover all aspects of college activity. With cross-college reviews it is particularly important that both college and reviewers have a shared understanding of what work is to be covered and that reviewers understand what the college expects from the process.

Examples of reviews of cross-college provision have covered leadership and management; governance; student support; the collection and use of learners' views; finance; management information systems; IT; resources; examinations; library provision; site; secretarial support; and marketing.

In one peer review group there are plans to bring together staff and students with disabilities in order to create a joint panel to assess the impact of the colleges' policies and practice on people with disabilities.

In another, the relationships have developed to the extent that they have established sub-groups where senior staff from the different colleges share their whole college self-assessment reviews and, working together, identify where their staff can help a college to improve specific provision.

When establishing a peer review group consider the following:

  • Clarify what you want to achieve through working in a peer review group.

  • Make sure you have 100 per cent commitment from your senior staff.

  • Work with partners you trust, preferably those with whom you work already.

  • Choose partners whose ethos you understand, and who understand yours.

  • Agree with your partners on what you want your peer review group to achieve. What is the balance to be between the two themes of peer review group working - quality improvement and quality assessment?

  • Consider the practicalities - time, distance, costs. Can you bid for additional resources to pump prime the development?

  • Identify a senior colleague in your school/college to lead on the operational tasks.

  • Collectively consider whether your group needs to recruit a manager and review this decision regularly as the range of activities grows.

  • Ensure that your staff are fully trained in the skills they need.

  • If collaborative work frustrates you, don't do it - seek another way.

Peer review activity in sixth form colleges is growing and developing; it is a very obvious demonstration of the way that colleges are taking responsibility for their own quality improvement. The first edition of the good practice guide is very much the start of a dialogue within the sector. The second edition should be even more interesting and useful than the first!

Godfrey Glyn is quality adviser for the SFCF and a former college principal.

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For more details about the SFCF Good Practice Guide to Peer Review contact Deepa Jethwa at the SFCF, deepa.jethwa@lge.gov.uk

Sixth Form Colleges' Forum: www.sfcf.org.uk

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