By appointment to the quality junkie

I'VE decided to make a clean breast of it. It's a new term and it deserves a new start. So I am coming out of the closet. People who work with me have either long suspected, or, in the case of those particularly close, known the embarrassing truth for years: I am a quality junkie.

In fact, I am a total quality junkie. I can't bear to see a sloppily designed performance indicator; my benchmarks have to be on real oak benches and if I witness a good piece of human interaction I just have to make sure it is properly standards-based and criterion referenced; or I make them do it again.

It wasn't always like this. I taught good lessons long before I heard of the Further Education National Training Organisation, and for decades I was unable to quote to three decimal places the percentage pass rates for all my classes for the last five years. But they were wild, undisciplined years, spontaneous, unpredictable, exciting, passionate even.

However, even in the middle of this hit-and-miss creativity, my soul longed for something more precise, reliable and, above all, measurable. And one Christmas I found it in my stocking: a book on managing quality by a man called Deeming. At first it was nothing much. A little more measurement here, a few extra standards there, a bit of summative evaluation early in the morning and formative assessment late at night.

As the world now knows, it didn't stop there. Soon, I had to read everything ever written on the subject and, before long, I was unable to pass a bookstore at a station or an airport without a quick fix from the "one-minute quality manager" clones the shelves are full of.

Occasionally, it was depressing; books on quality are often poorly written and badly designed. Mostly, though, I was filled with a zeal to get out there and make sure the world conformed to proper standards; practice could not be deemed good unless properly measured, and I was the guy to do it.

Now, of course, the college letter paper is so full of quality kitemarks that the actual letter has to start on page two. I was delighted to get what we in the business call "the full Major": the Chartermark, given for excellence in public service. Recent news that the awarding body is making the criteria tougher filled me with joy.

I was disappointed, though, to learn that Investors in People has introduced a no-fail assessment process, presumably to bring it in line with GCSE and A-level. For me, the giddy excitement in applying for the IIP award and, if the assessment went against you, having to tell staff that you didn't give a damn about them, and it was official, was the ultimate fix. And now it has gone and I am looking for something new.

I think I have found my heaven in a grain of mustard. As a child I lived in the village where my coalminer father worked. Opposite the house, the local shop had a huge yellow sign advertising a famous brand of mustard that my illiterate eyes thought was designed for colliers. It had its own fascinating quality kitemark: the huge royal crest above the "by appointment" text.

I chanced on a yellow tin of mustard powder the other day (I was checking that my kitchen cupboard stocks conformed to Euro regulation 3425 (i)) and I spotted the royal logo again, now much smaller for some reason. Perhaps the Queen takes less mustard on her bacon butties these days, though Prince Philip clearly makes up for it.

Anyway, it is clearly the new must-have quality kitemark for any self-respecting college. If a tin of mustard can earn it, surely we can. There is a drawback. Presumably, the logo is a sign not just of royal approval, but also of royal use? And no-one with a drop of blue blood has been anywhere near a college at any point in our history, unless you count Tony Blair.

However, the Prince of Wales spent a term slumming it at university in Aberystwyth to help him qualify as Welsh before his investiture, so let us not despair. And isn't the family keen to seem less remote, with greater street-cred? Wills is beyond reach at St Andrews, but young Harry, by all tabloid accounts, is a prime candidate for FE. There's a 12-week Prince's Trust programme which could have been designed for him. And, boy, would he get street-cred!

And in these days of cash-strapped royals, the fact that all admission fees for 16 to 18-year-olds have been scrapped could be just the bait needed to get me a "by appointment" crest.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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