‘I runs with the fox and I hunts with the hounds’. No, I’m not the elusive Pimpernel, but someone who manages a vocational training service for people with special needs and is a Lead Assessor for the National Accreditation Committee (NAC), assessing the quality standards operating within other centres. You could say I’m a poacher turned gamekeeper. I believe that this dual role has given me a better insight into both the Standard for Vocational Training and, more importantly, how best to run my own service in order to meet the needs of those participating in it.
The Standard for Vocational Training (S1/95) is a set of standards that apply in centres providing vocational training for people with disabilities. NRB began developing this standard in 1991, as part of a quality assurance process. The need for such a standard came about as a result of a number of factors. Service users had become more assertive in demanding an appropriate level of service. The key role of vocational training and personal development in the overall independence of the individual was being recognised. Finally, there was an absence of agreed standards in training centres and hence a considerable variation existed in the quality of service being provided at that time.
S1/95 lays out the standard that training centres must reach, in order to be accredited to run vocational training programmes. It does not specify how the standard must be reached, only what standard is required. This allows considerable flexibility to meet local needs. It covers all the main areas affecting a training organisation’s quality of service–policy; strategic planning; service design and delivery; administration; finance; and quality systems.
Apart from the S1/95, the other elements in this quality assurance process are:
- Peer-evaluation through teams of assessors (people like me!)
- An independent accreditation body (NAC)
- An appeals mechanism
This may all sound very technical, dull and of little relevance to the person participating in a training programme at their local centre. Far from it. One of the great successes of this quality assurance system is its focus on participant involvement, both in the preparation by the centre for accreditation, and by the attention paid by the assessor team to the views of trainees and their involvement in the service.
When an assessor team visits a centre there are a number of key areas that will be assessed, including the overall policy of the centre, its mission statement, and recognition of trainees’ rights and dignity. This is closely linked to the empowerment of trainees to understand and exercise their individual rights. Next comes the physical environment of the centre–are the conditions acceptable as a training location and does the centre meet its requirements under Health and Safety and other legislation?
While a centre may have fantastic premises, it is the quality of what goes on that really matters. The Service Standards focus on this area–strategic planning, programme design and programme delivery. While each of the subsections in this part of the Standard are essential, the key one for me is Section 3.3.3. This deals with trainee involvement in all key aspects of their training and is one of the most telling parts of the accreditation process for centres and assessors alike. To facilitate this, organisations are required to develop procedures to encourage, foster and promote trainee self-advocacy with an aim of reducing trainee dependency.
As well as the design and delivery of the programmes, the S1/95 standard looks at the supporting organisational, administrative and financial aspects of the service. In addition, those centres aiming at the higher ‘Centres of Excellence’ award must have developed a formal and effective quality system.
In my experience both as a service manager and a Lead Assessor, this quality assurance process has had a dramatic and positive impact on the standards of training being provided. Without exception every centre in the system has been able, through S1/95, to closely examine how every part of its service operates, and the interrelation between the different parts. Equally importantly, it has enabled centres to recognise and affirm the extensive good practice that already exists. Many of those centres that may have experienced initial difficulties in meeting the required standard have succeeded on re-applying for accreditation, after they have addressed the areas for improvement highlighted during the previous visit.
The S1/95 Standard has now been revised, and responsibility for the sector transferred to FÁS. Whatever happens next, the NAC accreditation process over the past three years made us all focus on the qualitative aspect of our services and the need to listen to, involve and include the individual (and where appropriate their family) in deciding how best our services should be run.