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Darling, you were wonderful

The fashion these days is for evaluation. It's rare to leave any course without a fistful of questionnaires asking you to comment on everything from the quality of the food to the colour of the tutor's tie.

Inspectors look disapproving if can't reel off a list of success criteria for every item on your action plan, and if you don't have a scheme for measuring your added value you might as well put in for early retirement now.

I am as much in favour of evaluation as the next person. It's hard not to be.

But every so often, in unguarded moments, I find myself having doubts. I can go to bed confident that the world is secure for modern management theory, only to wake up in the middle of the night wondering, heaven forbid, whether it all makes any difference.

It's a terrible condition, comparable in its debilitating effects with any of the more widely recognised occupational diseases.

The problem is that however rational evaluation may seem as a way of building continuous improvement into the system, it has all the psychological subtlety of a knobkerrie. On the face of it, nothing could be more sensible than measuring how well things are going in order to provide the essential information that is needed to do better In practice, it is an approach which fails entirely to take into account what might be termed the "bugger this" factor, as in "bugger this, I'm off". There comes a point at which the only healthy response to the threat of further criticism is to switch off.

It is no good arguing that it's not personal. As one headteacher ruefully announced after a particularly gruelling inspection: "they told me that no individuals would be identified in the report, but it's not difficult to guess who they are talking about when they refer to senior management at the highest level".

There's "nothing personal" about examination results, but all of us had friends at school who knew only too well that if there was one thing worse than failing, it was failing when you had tried.

For those who stick around, there's another equally damaging exit line.

It too has a familiar ring about it - "I don't care what they say. You can only do your best".

That, in a nutshell is the problem with evaluation.

All it is ever able to do is ensure that everybody does their best. In my experience, they usually need to do a good deal better than that, so the most skilful managers find ways of making sure that people are highly effective without having to do their best.

Some years ago, I heard an HMI giving a talk about inspection. It was in the days when you looked to HMI for inspiration and often found it.

He quoted from, I think, Leon Garfield: "Many a man is made good by being told he is so". And it's true.

There is nothing more likely to send your confidence soaring than a bit of unjustified praise.

So I wouldn't advise too much evaluation. Reality is a wonderful thing, but you can have too much of it. After only a few minutes exposure to the real world, I start to hanker after a bit of insincere enthusiasm.

Give me "Darling, you were wonderful" any time. I'm with the luvvies on evaluation.

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