Strategic planning in the Vocational Education Centre of Tartu

The Vocational Education Centre of Tartu is the largest VET institution in Estonia. It was formed in 2002 from the merger of four vocational schools and, in 2014/15 had 226 teachers with 3,500 students and 3,000 learners following a continuing education course. The Centre offers a broad range of study programmes to upper-secondary and post-upper secondary pupils; programmes for those who left school early at 17; pre-vocational studies; and initial or continuing vocational training for adults. The Centre’s main study areas are: manufacturing and processing; mechanics and metal work; construction; information, communication technologies and logistics; services; accounting; office work; tourism; and hotel and catering.

Following the merger, the management team wanted to work with staff and students to develop a shared organisational culture. The Centre created a quality assurance team of about 20 people including representatives of teaching staff, middle and top management. This team designs the development planning system; develops the quality assurance approach; optimises the organisation’s structure; creates a shared organisational culture; measures the satisfaction of students, employees and stakeholders; and promotes self-assessment etc.

To support the Centre’s development, five year plans are designed and implemented. These set out short and long term goals. These goals are then used by stakeholders to set targets for the different levels in the organisation. The Centre’s achievement of the goals is monitored through the use of indicators or success criteria. To ensure the outcomes of the plans are measured regularly the Centre uses the EFQM Excellence Model to conduct an annual self-assessment. The quality assurance processes (based on the Total Quality Management system) and the monitoring of the implementation of the Centre’s plan are based on the four stages of the quality assurance cycle. The Centre’s approach uses the following principles:

  • processes must be managed;
  • all staff are responsible for their own results;
  • problems must be solved, not only discussed;
  • quality must be measured;
  • quality must be continuously improved;
  • the management team must be involved, committed and in the lead.

Members of staff, students and stakeholders are involved in producing the Centre’s development plans which are based on national strategies and priorities. The plans are developed in discussions, meetings, seminars, conferences and brainstorming sessions with interested groups. The results of the previous year’s plan and the quality of the current educational provision are analysed using a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and a review of external factors is undertaken. An external consultant is involved in the process.

Once the annual development plan is agreed, responsibility for implementation rests with the head of the Centre, the deputies, heads of units, and employees with responsible for a broad groups of studies. The highest decision-making body of the Centre - the council - organises the implementation of the activities in the development plan. Every employee has duties and obligations associated with the implementation of the development plan – students also have a role in achieving their learning outcomes.

There have been two five-year development plans (for 2008-2013 and 2014-2018) - each of which has been accompanied by an annual action plan which sets out activities for each unit in the Centre. The Centre uses indicators to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of these activities in relation to achieving the main goals. There is an annual self-assessment of how well the activities have been implemented. This self-assessment considers the impact on results, customers, processes, and learning and development, and lead to the production of targets for the next year. As part of the design of the annual development plan, responsibility for each activity and indicator of success is assigned to a named person. When deciding which activities to undertake, the Centre ensures that:

  • objectives and activities are relevant to the Centre’s mission and vision;
  • there are benefit to students, staff members, employers or wider society (the local authority which owns the Centre, the Ministry of Education, etc.)

What has been the impact on the development of the Centre?

The Centre follows Total Quality Management guidelines, uses a quality assurance cycle (plan – do – check - act) and follows the principles and criteria of the National Quality Award for VET Institutions which is based on EFQM Excellence model. As part of its quality assurance, the Centre looks at the impact that new processes have on the following indicators:

  • the number of students;
  • the quality of the student support systems;
  • the number of graduates;
  • the number of officially qualified graduates (those who have passed the national professional exams);
  • the rate of employment after graduation;
  • the number of students who progress to further studies;
  • the dropout rate;
  • the number of fully qualified teaching staff;
  • the number of staff who participate in in-service training.

Lessons learnt

The five year strategic planning process highlights the importance of focusing on continued improvement, analysing results and developing a management culture focused on quality assurance. The Centre has found it helps to use a systemic approach, to make decisions based on evidence – this approach has led to very good results from 2011-2014. The use of a quality assurance cycle has improved the Centre’s ability of set annual targets within the context of goals which cover five years. Participation in the National Quality Award and the national system for accreditation has increased the Centre’s ability to connect their activities and results.

The main challenge associated with introducing a five-yearly planning cycle has been the need to acknowledge that quality assurance is not an external obligation but a relevant tool for ensuring internal development takes place, competitiveness improves (how to be the best we can be), and the satisfaction of stakeholders is strengthened.

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