Highlighting best practice as a representative in The Parliamentary Review

The ability to listen and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones. The following article from Ascentis is an attempt to do just that. We would welcome your thoughts on this or any other Parliamentary Review article.

Highlighting best practice
Phil Wilkinson, CEO
IDL Literacy – helping
children with dyslexia
Founded in 1975, Ascentis is one of the UK’s leading
educational charities, transforming the lives of around
170,000 people every year through its range of
qualifications and specialist software. Ascentis works closely
with colleges, schools, independent training organisations and
universities to design cutting-edge qualifications to enable
people to progress to further study, higher education and
employment. Their specialist software programs, called Indirect
Dyslexia Learning, support school pupils with specific learning
difficulties such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. CEO Phil Wilkinson
explains that the key to their success is a clear vision and a
caring and ambitious culture that is shared by committed,
passionate and talented staff.
Our organisation started life as The Open College of the North West (OCNW)
in 1971 – a small unincorporated association of colleges and universities with
a handful of staff. I joined as CEO in 2001 and I set about transforming the
business from an unregulated regional accreditation body into one of the UK’s
leading regulated awarding organisations, also known as exam boards. Within
a year OCNW was operating across the UK, providing a range of educational
qualifications regulated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (now
Ofqual) and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.
Following a period of steady growth, I took the decision in 2009 to break OCNW
away from the university that was hosting it, in order to set it free as a fully
»CEO: Phil Wilkinson
»Established in 1975
»Based in Lancaster
»Services: Leading UK exam
»Winner of the Federation
of Awarding Bodies (FAB)
Awarding Organisation of the
»Largest access validating
agency for access to HE
independent legal entity. This involved
incorporating the organisation into
a company limited by guarantee
and achieving formal charity status
from the Charity Commission. In
order to underline these structural
changes, I rebranded the organisation
as Ascentis. This rebooting of our
company resulted in significant growth
in our level of charitable activity
and associated income and staffing,
leading to our relocation to much
larger offices.
With the qualification side of the
company now doing so well I
wanted Ascentis to expand its range
of charitable services. I was very
impressed with a particular software
intervention program – Indirect
Dyslexia Learning (IDL Literacy) – which
was used in schools to help children
with dyslexia, so I arranged for that
activity to be absorbed into Ascentis.
I invested heavily in the development
and promotion of IDL Literacy and
quickly established a customer base of
2,000 primary and secondary schools.
In 2016, I became aware that an
educational charity operating in the
southwestern region, AptEd, was
unfortunately struggling, with very
weak finances. Concerned that the
services provided by this charity
would be lost if it was forced to close,
Iabsorbed the services through an
acquisition of the company. This was a
very challenging process but ultimately
extremely worthwhile as it preserved
the services, now an integral part of
Ascentis’ charitable activity, for the
beneficiaries – schools and colleges
and their learners – in the southwest.
Ascentis is now worth nearly £5 million
and we are a significant employer
in the Lancaster area. It has been an
exciting journey and in recognition of
our work we have been awarded the
accolade of “Awarding Organisation
of the Year” by the Federation of
A simple but effective
The past ten-year period has been
very challenging for educational
charities like ourselves and the
customers that we serve – particularly
the further education sector – as a
result of severe funding reductions
and constant policy changes.
However, while many of our
competitors have shrunk or closed,
Ascentis has continued to thrive. The
key to our success is simple.
The correct strategy: we don’t try to
do everything. Instead we focus on
the areas in which we can truly be
the best. For our qualifications, that
means Access to Higher Education,
English for Speakers of Other
Languages (ESOL), Teacher Training
and Short Online Qualifications in
areas such as understanding British
values and mental health. For our
specialist software this means
solutions to help children with dyslexia
and dyscalculia.
Ascentis centres across
the UK
We don’t try
to do
Instead we
focus on the
areas in which
we can truly
be the best
Highlighting best practice
The best people to implement the
strategy: this starts with the culture,
which, at Ascentis, is defined as a
strong desire to help people coupled
with an equally strong desire to be
ambitious and competitive. This culture
is constantly reinforced. As CEO I am
supported by a talented leadership
team, a wider management team and
a growing base of staff, moderators
and external verifiers.
The impact of Ascentis
Every year we help more than 130,000
people to work towards educational
qualifications, to enable them to
progress to employment or further
study, including higher education.
For example, our ESOL qualifications
enable learners to demonstrate that
they have good speaking, writing,
listening and reading skills in English.
Not only does this help improve their
everyday life but it’s also an effective
way to show employers the student’s
language skills and is a boost to
their CV. Around 50,000 people
every year study towards an Ascentis
Our Access to Higher Education
qualifications prepare learners for
study at degree level. They are
designed for people who would like
to go to university but who left school
without the qualifications they need.
Many of the learners come from
very disadvantaged backgrounds.
Around 6,000 people every year study
towards an Ascentis Access to Higher
Education Diploma and go on to
secure employment in a wide range
Every year we help in excess of
40,000 school pupils in around 2,000
schools with our IDL Literacy dyslexia
intervention programme, which typically
results in pupils’ reading and spelling
ages increasing on average by around
ten months after just 26 hours of use.
Looking to the future
Ascentis is currently experiencing
the most successful period in its
entire history with an annual growth
in our level of charitable activity of
approximately 20 per cent. In the future
we plan to provide our qualification
services to an increasing number of
schools, colleges and independent
training organisations across the UK,
helping more learners than ever before
to improve their life chances. We will
support regional post-16 skills and adult
education strategies such as “Skills for
Londoners” so that we can target our
resources to maximum effect.
We will provide a new software solution –
IDL Numeracy – to schools to help pupils
with dyscalculia. We will then expand our
provision of all IDL products to schools
overseas, focusing on opportunities
in the Middle East, Australia and New
Zealand so that we can help to improve
the lives of people with dyslexia and
dyscalculia on a global scale.
We will continue to develop our
strategy in line with the business
environment in which we operate and
strive for continuous improvement,
being prepared to adapt quickly to
new challenges and opportunities.
In this way we can continue to help
as many people as possible with our
wonderful charitable work.
We are
the most
period in our
entire history,
helping more
learners than
ever before to
improve their
life chances
The senior leadership

This article was sponsored by Ascentis. The Parliamentary Review is wholly funded by the representatives who write for it.