About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Quality assurance on the fringes of education

In the diverse world of youth and education programmes that fall outside of formal public sector services, the measures that are taken to assure and improve quality are equally diverse. If your service does not fall under the purview of Ofsted it is, to a large degree, up to you what you do to make sure that your work with young people is safe and of a high quality. Grant funders don’t hold delivery organisations to account to anything like the degree that the government holds schools and other education and care services to account. This is not a bad thing in itself; an Oftsed-style inspection framework would be disproportionate to many activities and programmes delivered by charities for young people. But we do need something.

There is a risk and an opportunity here. The risk is obvious: services that don’t systematically address the question of quality assurance will be at best inconsistent and at worst dangerous. The opportunity is that, in the absence of formal structures, organisations (and collectives of organisations) can innovate in their approach to quality assurance; taking the best from their public sector counterparts and teaching them a few tricks themselves.

A personal perspective

My first experience of quality control was as a youth-worker-come-facilitator of a programme that supported 16-19 year olds to lead their own campaigns and community projects. The structure of the ‘programme’ was incredibly loose, based on one core principle: “It’s up to them”. It’s up to the young people what they want to change and how they want to change it. I had almost no curriculum with which to support this aim, I was almost never observed by my bosses, and I loved it. It was brilliant to have the freedom to adapt my approach to each group of young people that I worked with and the trust and level of responsibility that I was given were incredibly motivating. The knock on effect on the young people that I worked with was in some cases amazing. But the results weren’t always like that and this was, in some senses, a high risk approach.

Later, as a manager who no longer had direct contact with young people, I was no longer able to influence quality directly. I was faced with a new challenge: how could I bump up quality and consistency without killing the staff empowerment that was so key to getting the best results? The temptation, when you lose such direct control is to add structure and increase monitoring; to become more like a school and more like Ofsted. Structure and monitoring are absolutely necessary to a degree, but the difficult art (that I came nowhere near to mastering) lies in staying proportionate and in maintaining the right kind of trust in those who actually deliver the programme. Of all the things I tried to influence quality from a distance, these are my four key learnings:

  1. Recruit and train for excellent delivery staff: You can design the most sophisticated, evidence-based programme in the world, but without the right people delivering it, it will fail. 
  2. Observation is a must: When done well, observation combined with well-delivered feedback is the most effective tool for developing practitioners. It is also necessary if you want to know for sure how your programme is implemented on the ground.
  3. Action learning is key: Practitioners should be supported to continually share best practice and troubleshoot problems together (and your managers need to be good a facilitating this learning).
  4. More structure does not necessarily = more impact: The level of structure that you impose on a programme should be inversely proportional to the level of competency of your practitioners. For example, corporate volunteers with no experience of working with young people need simple roles that play to their strengths and clear instructions. Great facilitators need the freedom to be able to adapt to the circumstances.

Emerging practice in networks

In 2012, the The Young Foundation was commissioned to produce a quality framework for Youth Social Action. This involved consultation and workshopping with organisations from across the sector and was a good start. The result has been used by the Cabinet Office in their funding procedures but, I guess, has seen very little use by delivery organisations themselves. The project did, however, bring the sector together and there is a now a formal network of organisations (Generation Change) working to drive quality and increase opportunities for young people. Part of the work of this newly-formed network will involve further developing and implementing the quality framework.

Other interesting examples exist in formal education. Whole Education is a network that brings together leading education organisations that demonstrate a commitment to a more rounded education for young people. Their core purpose is not quality assurance per se, but they are one example of the many new networks in education that are bringing schools, teachers and others together in new and exciting ways to share and spread best practice.

Networks are an important element in the future of quality.

A new project: a collaborative quality framework

Nesta has recently joined up with the Innovation Unit at Teach First and The Brightside Trust to look at best practice in one-to-one support for young people. Over recent years, we have seen this field - be it coaching, mentoring or tutoring - develop significantly and have supported some leading organisations to develop their evidence-bases and grow.

We think that now is good time to bring the sector together to share and capture best practice. To support these goals, we are running a series of workshops that will lead to the production of a quality framework / best practice guide for all those interested in delivering outstanding one-to-one support for young people.

The final document will:

  • take into account existing evidence, but will be led by practitioner experience;
  • involve other key stakeholders in the process (esp. funders, policy-makers and researchers) and;
  • not pretend to be ‘final’.

We are not going to monitor or assess organisations against this framework (we don’t have the right to do this even if we wanted to!) but hope that value will be gained from the process of creating it as well as its dissemination.

Image credit: by Lemon Liu


Patrick Taylor

Patrick Taylor

Patrick Taylor

Programme Manager

Paddy was a Programme Manager in the Innovation Lab, leading on our work that uses social action to support young people to succeed.

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