SARs: The bugbear of FE

Martin Lawrie from Newcastle-under-Lyme College explains how adopting the right technology can ensure a more effective SAR

It’s no secret that self-assessment reports (SARs) are bugbears for most FE organisations. The lack of up-to-date and accurate information available and the length of time it takes to complete these reports are common complaints.

Four years ago Newcastle-under-Lyme College decided to review how SARs were written. At the time Ofsted grade 3 was still classed as “satisfactory” and the College was still relying on Word templates and print outs of statistics from MIS. Typically, SARs were written when results were being finalised between September and October and at the end of the process an action plan was devised.

Requiring staff to write SARs during their busiest period presented a number of operational challenges. Some staff only had time to analyse a small selection of data and would sometimes choose to edit it. This caused inconsistencies and resulted in various copies circulating at the same time, which created confusion. It was not uncommon for staff to attend meetings with different and out-of-date versions of the same SAR.

Even when the SAR was finally completed it was too late to implement an action plan based on the findings. Invariably, the late SAR (s) would be left gathering dust in a drawer, having zero effect on shaping future strategy. It is little wonder many questioned the point?

We needed to find a better way and we did. Step one involved transferring all the SARs to our in-house database and writing a web front end so staff could complete and managers could view the information. Next, an online action plan, containing prompts from the Ofsted Common Inspection Framework, was added and up-to-date live statistics included everything from success rates to student survey results. Finally, we found a way to incorporate this into one document, which eliminated problems associated with handling multiple, out-of-date versions.

However, the real breakthrough came when we based our success rates on predicted success and could demonstrate accuracy within one per cent. This crucially allowed us to move the whole process to June, three months earlier than previously, albeit with a few minor tweaks in September. This allowed staff to write timely action plans, which could be easily monitored and tracked online. In addition they are added to and updated through the year and referred to in quality meetings.

So does everyone now love the SAR? Not necessarily but at least it now only takes staff just one day to write (plus an hour in September). Better still, they no longer have to spend time finding, collating and amalgamating data as the action plan is an effective living document and managers can review edit and validate the SARs easily.

For the past year, the College has been working closely with Compass Computer Consultants to develop a commercial version of our system which can be fully customised to meet the needs of any college, with different data, questions and reports.

We have run our SAR system this year with Compass’s software and the proof is in the pudding. Software enhancements and excellent support have led to a significant and steady rise in success rates year on year and more positive Ofsted inspections.

Having access to a centralised system online system that is fully compliant with Ofsted criteria ensures there is only one version of the truth. Those completing self-assessments are also reassured that they are using centrally validated data to make better informed decisions based on the College Inspection Framework.

With the right technology in place SARs no longer have to be the bugbear for FE institutions.

Martin Lawrie is Head of Learning and Quality Systems, Newcastle-under-Lyme College

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