Number of providers 2023
No. of further education learners at further education institutions 2021-22
No. of learners 2020-21
No. of core inspections: 1
No. of case studies: 1
Further education colleges responded flexibly to the pandemic in order to maintain continuity of learning and support for learners, especially in terms of facilitating remote and online delivery. When inspections resumed, we found that most learning activities had returned gradually to face-to-face delivery. This was welcomed by most learners and staff members across all colleges. However, as a result of the least able learners having fallen further behind, skills gaps in literacy and particularly numeracy, remained substantially wider than for similar cohorts of learners prior to the pandemic.
Teaching and learning
During our link inspector engagement visits and calls to further education (FE) colleges we focused on online and digital learning. Following the period of restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges had either returned fully to inperson delivery or retained a very small amount of online delivery. Most teachers and learners welcomed the return to in-person delivery. Remote learning remained available for a few commercial and professional programmes, where learners and employers valued this flexible approach. A very few colleges offered part-time mathematics and English GCSE courses online.
Colleges and their learners continued to benefit from the Welsh Government funded sizeable investments they had made in equipment and resources during the pandemic. These digital resources were being used to support and enhance classroom delivery and to offer extension activities and homework. They also enabled a flipped approach to learning whereby learners could access resources prior to lessons to prepare them for class-based activities and discussions. A few lessons were also recorded, enabling learners to revisit them or access them at a later date if they were absent.
Where an embedded approach to digital learning was well established, many learners particularly valued the opportunities this offered. Helpful examples included the use of teacher voice notes to supplement written feedback, web-based tools for collaborative activities, and the use of virtual reality headsets as a learning tool.
Our engagement visits and calls also focused on colleges’ arrangements for educational visits. Colleges recognised the value and positive impact of educational visits for all learners, in terms of enhancing their learning as well as their personal and social development. Opportunities to take part in trips and visits varied between different curriculum areas. In most cases, the number of educational visits, including overseas trips, had broadly returned to pre-pandemic norms. This was usually phased, prioritising specific curriculum areas and groups of learners. For example, colleges had prioritised learners who needed to attend events or undertake activities outside of college to complete their qualifications. They also prioritised learners who would particularly benefit from accessing off-site activities, such as independent living skills (ILS) learners. Colleges particularly welcomed the opportunity for learners and staff to spend time abroad as part of the Welsh Government funded Taith international learning exchange programme.
During the core inspection of Coleg Cambria, we found many vocational learners undertook a wide range of practical activities that developed their skills to match industry needs. Academic and vocational learners across a wide range of abilities consistently achieved good grades relative to their individual starting points. However, learners’ numeracy skills were less well developed than similar cohorts prior to the pandemic.
Coleg Cambria’s curriculum offered a wide range of courses ranging from school link provision for local pupils in Years 10 and 11, to higher education courses. Most teachers knew their learners well and planned activities that engaged them effectively. However, across the college, many teachers did not plan well enough to develop learners’ literacy, numeracy and digital literacy skills.
Targeted work experience at Coleg Cambria
Coleg Cambria develops effective partnerships with local employers to provide real life work experience opportunities for learners to progress into employment or higher education. An example of this is the NHS nursing cadet programme, where the college has developed strong links with a local health board to enable level 3 health and social care learners to undertake work placements. These are within surgical and medical wards at hospitals and take place during the first year of study; learners then choose a specialist area to progress onto during their second year.
Care, support and well-being
During the core inspection at Coleg Cambria, inspectors found that most learners were enthusiastic about their courses and where motivated to achieve their qualifications, with many aiming to progress to the next level. Learners felt safe and well supported by their teachers and other staff members when attending the college. Most learners felt that the college was an inclusive and welcoming place where they were valued. Nearly all worked well together and with their teachers and other staff members.
Most learners were aware of, and benefited from, a wide range of support for their mental health and emotional well-being. Learners valued the culture that promoted their independence and supported their progression. Many showed a clear understanding of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation.
In a recently published case study, we outlined how Coleg Cambria identified a substantial increase in mental health and well-being disclosures and referrals, partially in response to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the college noted a high number of disciplinary cases involving learners from low-income households. As a result, the college introduced a comprehensive cross-college approach to traumainformed practice that aligns with the Trauma-informed Wales framework (ACE Hub Wales, 2022). These approaches have been developed through a ‘Trauma-informed methodology’ and are supported by specialist staff and an ‘Inclusive College Strategy’. The initiative equips staff to support both learners and colleagues.
As part of their trauma informed approach, Coleg Cambria developed and implemented an action plan including a programme of training and awareness-raising across the college. This resulted in staff being well trained to use positive and effective strategies that supported well-being and helped learners remain engaged with their learning. Having been reviewed through a trauma-informed lens, the college’s processes, together with their approach teaching and learning, were resulting in early signs of improved well-being among learners and staff members.
As part of our thematic review of peer-on-peer sexual harassment, we visited all FE colleges in Wales to focus on this complex issue. We reviewed the processes that were in place to help protect and support 16 to 18-year-olds, the culture among college learners, and the provision colleges had in place to promote healthy relationships. We found that peer-on-peer sexual harassment was widely underreported. For a variety of reasons, many learners chose not, or were unsure how, to report incidents of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment incidents took place both in-person and online. Our discussions with learners and staff members suggested that learners identifying as female or LGBTQ+ and learners with additional learning needs, were more likely to experience sexual harassment in comparison to the learner cohort overall.
Colleges had well-established learner disciplinary policies and processes and most dealt effectively with the most serious cases of alleged peer-on-peer sexual harassment reported to them. We found that college systems for accurate recording and analysis of sexual harassment among learners were underdeveloped. Too often, incidents of sexual harassment were recorded and categorised using generic classifications of bullying.
Leading and improving
During the Coleg Cambria inspection, we found that the chief executive officer, supported by the senior leadership team, governors and staff, had established a strategic direction for the college based on a shared vision, mission and strategic goals. Many staff felt valued, included and positive about the strategic direction and they appreciated the strong focus on well-being and support.
Inspectors found that the college served the needs of its communities well. It had well-developed partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders including local authorities, schools, other further education colleges, public service boards, the regional skills partnership and employers. The college senior management team had a clear focus on improving learning experiences to make sure that all learners reached their full potential. The college used comprehensive quality improvement procedures and collected a wide range of information to inform their practices. At the time of the inspection, several key initiatives were new, and managers did not always measure the progress and impact of actions well enough.
Through our engagement visits and calls, we found that the quality assurance of online and digital learning was addressed through more than one route and varied between colleges. All colleges had an observation programme, which included online and digital learning. Most colleges had digital teams or individuals in place to support this aspect of the curriculum. This included specialist teams that created content as well as curriculum-focused digital mentors who were often teachers or support staff members who had been allocated time for this role. Informal peer support between teachers was also a valuable form of development.
Colleges were continuing to provide learning opportunities for staff members to update their skills in digital and online learning. Leaders acknowledged the appetite for digital development across the workforce and identified the positive impact this was having on teaching, learning and assessment, as well as wider services. Colleges shared their experiences and knowledge of digital learning through both formal and informal networks. For example, a sector digital leads network was set up to support collaboration.
Inspectors found that colleges had responded positively to the recommendations from our thematic review of education visits policies in FE, which was published in 2015. Providers had used the findings of the report as a basis to review their visit policies and procedures and, where necessary, had put in place detailed step-by-step guidance for educational visits addressing each of the recommendations. For example, they had introduced formal codes of conduct that were shared and signed prior to visits taking place, and introduced specific references to visits within relevant guidance and policies.
Staff members responsible for learner visits were provided with regular updates and inexperienced staff members were required to undertake initial training including, in some cases, to shadow or assist more experienced staff before leading visits themselves. Most providers did not gather formal trip-related feedback from learners, although informally, learners shared that the experiences were valuable and positive.
During our visits to colleges as part of the thematic review of peer-on-peer sexual harassment, many staff members told us they lacked confidence and felt that there was a need for more professional development and updates in this regard. Overall, we found there was a lack of FE-specific resources to support college staff members in dealing with peer-on-peer sexual harassment. Collaborative work to address these concerns has begun recently but it is too early to evaluate its effectiveness or impact.
ACE Hub Wales (2022) Trauma-Informed Wales: A societal approach to understanding, preventing and supporting the impacts of trauma and adversity. Cardiff: ACE Hub Wales. [Online]. Available from: https://acehubwales.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/V11-Wales-Trauma-Informed-Approach-and-Practice-Framework-5.pdf [Accessed 16 November 2023]