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Deliver us from evil principals

The Adult Learning Inspectorate, by and large, gets a decent press for what it does. However, it sometimes annoys me that inspection in general attracts more detraction as expensive, tiresome and disruptive, than it does praise for being a soothing balm.

Now, I understand that. Who wants to invite a chiropodist to dinner? It's more human, somehow, to prattle about doctors as if they were 18th century sawbones, than to praise the annual medical for conferring a matchless sense of well-being. Slagging off inspectors, whipping up the horrors about their impending visit and swaggering about their blindness and stupidity once they have gone, are as natural as dreading dentists a full half-century after the pain went out of drilling. We manage our concerns by demonising them.

But there are many roles for inspection, from giving welcome confirmation of excellence, to gently guiding improvement, to one which is as vital as that of the undertaker and not dissimilar to it in character.

I have at home a battered paperback called Red for Danger. It is about the evolution of safe working on the railways, through two centuries of accident, inspection and improvement. There are gloriously comic photographs, including one entitled "Greek meets Greek", showing a head-on collision between two steam locomotives at Paragon Station, Hull, which left both angled sharply skywards but otherwise apparently only slightly bent. There are many more tragic encounters, including some which left hundreds dead or maimed.

In every case, inspectors of railways winnowed out the lessons to be learned and helped make things better for the rest of us. While I don't expect fulsome thanks from the bereaved, there is an element of inspection which, in the prevailing psychobabble, could be termed "closure".

Imagine this. Somewhere in England there is a college where the principal is mad, bad or incompetent. She or he, through blinding charm, snarling savagery or cunningly applied tedium, has lulled the governors into neglect or unconditional approval. While student surveys remain as reassuring as they always are, every member of staff knows the place is going to the dogs. There's no money because it has been spent on hare-brained schemes, invested in the principal's monument or Micawber-like, has just been greater in its goings than its comings. The funding bodies are in quiet despair but are browbeaten or persuaded into continuing support. They lack any real alternative and they fear the grief that goes with grabbing a local institution by the throat and shaking it hard.

I don't have any particular case in mind but it would not be hard to find names to fit the charge sheet. I shall not be surprised if my postbag from whistleblowing teachers bulges next week, because you know organisations like those I'm describing as well as I do.

Somewhere in England there is a principal who huffs and puffs about the inspectorates on every letters page and whose staff are down on their knees nightly. "From such leadership, dear Lord, may the ALI and Ofsted deliver us."

The mention of "succession planning", my senior colleagues once told me, made them feel like the wounded lying helpless on the battlefield waiting to be bayoneted. There are colleges and all kinds of other providers that are the wounded lying on the battlefield and in which every member of staff but one wants an inspector humanely to drive home the bayonet.

This is not a pretty image and inspection is sometimes not a pretty job.

You know that everyone round the table is waiting for you - aching for you - to deliver the coup de grace to the principal. Very rarely is it a pleasure and often it is a real sadness. Good people sometimes take on the wrong job or stay too long. Delivering the bad news can be like ending a doomed love affair. But it has to be done and the only people with the power to do it are the inspectors.

Consider this. In the first round of college inspections after 1993, just over 60 general further education colleges were graded consistently good.

Only 12 of them have sustained that level of performance until now. Go through the statistics and you will find that there is only one surefire way of driving up standards: deliver a bad inspection report. This is the only thing that leads governors to hang out the "Under new management" sign.

Human organisations, in education as in everything else, grow, mature, wither and die. In the world of private enterprise, the remorseless logic of money brings about an end. In the public sector, your and my income tax is capable of making possible a corporate rebirth, but some other force is needed to ensure that the necessary internal renewal takes place. That force is inspection.

The comfortable way to improve organisations is the gradual way, but that is rarer than we all might wish. In an imperfect, human world, inspectors are as necessary as the carrion crow. We are the Greek that the other Greek must meet. We are the nemesis that opens the way to a better tomorrow.

David Sherlock is chief inspector for adult learning.

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