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Can provider accreditation be a tool for quality development?

Provider accreditation is generally understood to mean the formal recognition of competence to carry out certain tasks - but does it really help to inprove the quality of education? Quality expert Andrew McCoshan investigates.

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Provider accreditation is generally understood to mean the formal recognition of competence to carry out certain tasks. Work undertaken collectively by EU Member States in recent years has shown that its use varies substantially.

In some countries, non-formal adult learning providers are accredited by law. In other countries, accreditation is not necessarily mandatory but it can be essential in order to access public funds. Some countries don't use it at all but instead rely on quality marks. Whether and how accreditation is used seems to be related to the general approach to adult learning in a country but also, more fundamentally, how it is viewed as a tool for quality. Perspectives differ. An important question to ask is: in what circumstances can provider accreditation be a quality development tool?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that accreditation is necessarily a “top-down" and external requirement placed by national or regional authorities on providers. The focus is typically on setting down minimum standards or quality criteria. In this context there is a risk that accreditation encourages a “compliance culture": there is a focus on meeting the “letter" of the standard rather than the “spirit" of quality assurance.

We also need to consider the content of the quality criteria within provider accreditation frameworks. Accreditation often focuses on inputs and systems rather than on outcomes for adult learners.

Also of importance is the way in which accreditation is carried out. The quality of the accreditation assessment process can be a potential weak link.  Assessors may focus on compliance whereas, done well, assessment can give providers feedback that helps them think about themselves from a fresh perspective and on ways to develop.

So how might provider accreditation support a quality development process rather than simply compliance with minimum standards? To tackle this issue we need to find answers to some key questions:

  • Rather than requiring a minimum level of compliance, should accreditation frameworks be graded, for example should they have gold, silver and bronze levels?
  • How can provider accreditation engage all staff in developing the ‘bottom-up’ quality cultures that have been identified as vital to achieving quality adult learning?  (See the EU-funded QALLL network)
  • Can accreditation frameworks incorporate learner outcomes? Or should outcomes be located elsewhere, perhaps in some sort of wider quality framework?
  • How can we improve the assessment process through assessor training that delivers a supportive and developmental process amongst providers?

The answers to these questions may be difficult. But they may help to move from a situation where the relationship between providers and accreditation is reminiscent of the joke about the relationship between pigs and chickens on the one hand and ham and eggs on the other: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. We probably need more accreditation systems that encourage commitment rather than just involvement.

Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has specialised in policy development studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently a freelance consultant, an Associate with the UK Higher Education Academy, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and a Member of the UK Education & Employers Taskforce Research Group.


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