I've been thinking a great deal about HM Inspectors recently. Not that they have been here. My involvement has been second-hand - an inspection has been carried out at a friend's college - but through providing moral support and occasionally more solid (or liquid) sustenance I feel I have had a vicarious involvement (which seems to me, and probably Mr Smith too, the best way to be involved.) My friend seems happy enough with the inspection process and with the feedback he has received so far. I hope he is as happy when he receives the final report.
The EIS charge that the Inspectorate has moved "from a culture of support to a culture of blame" is serious stuff. Though the Inspectorate has rebuffed the suggestion, the accusation remains and I understand from people I know in schools that there is certainly a feeling that the relationship has broken down and that the Inspectorate is being used as a cat's-paw for its political masters.
However, schools are not further education. This is not to say that the FE inspectorate is immune to political interference; in some cases they are the same people as the schools inspectorate anyway. But I would suggest that the feelings of the FE sector are different - witness the different reactions of both sectors to the problems of Higher Still.
Perhaps more significantly, in recent years in FE the olitical problems have impacted more on non-curricular issues, such as incorporation itself, the cessation of national bargaining, changes to the funding model and most recently the creation of the FE funding council. Crucially, the Inspectorate has not been perceived as having been involved in these other issues and has probably remained unsullied by them.
In any case the FE inspectorate has worries of its own. Since last year inspectors have been "subcontracted" to carry out inspections on behalf of the funding council rather than, as before, directly as part of government. Much speculation has arisen over the effect of this move on the impartiality of the Inspectorate - back to the Ronnie Smith question.
A more significant question is whether there is a future for the FE inspectorate or whether some type of quality control function operating directly from the funding council will replace it. I am led to believe some inspectors themselves are not sure what the future holds - but then why should they be different from the rest of us?
As always there are different camps. There are those who think that the Inspectorate is out of touch, too full of its own dignity, and has not been sufficiently understanding of or sympathetic to the plight of FE staff post-incorporation. And there are those who see the Inspectorate as hard-pressed professional colleagues who are similarly caught up in the over-inspection, over-auditing and underfunding of the public sector and who do provide a valuable support to further education.
So take your pick - ghosts, impostors, government agents, or
cat's-paws, who either deserve what's coming to them or require our sympathy because they are in the same boat as the rest of us.
My view? I'm saying no more until I see the report on my friend's college.
Norman Williamson is depute principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the EIS.