'Does exactly what it says on the tin'

The assessment of quality in the service sector remains a vexed question.

The intangibility of the "product" and the active role of the customer in the service transaction are but two of the issues that make this challenging. But the assessment of quality of provision in education is - well it's the kind of issue which, proverbially, could start a fight in an empty room.

There is no argument about the obligation to seek to drive up quality in the sector. Our professionalism would demand as much, even if we were not in receipt of substantial amounts of public funding.

There is, however, a serious and urgent debate which has begun about what is assessed, how, by whom and, critically, for what purpose? Is the principal purpose service development and improvement, or is compliance really the issue? And can a "one size fits all" model really work in colleges, where autonomous boards of management are working with their executives to establish their unique local identities?

An alternative approach, which resolves many of the problems and contradictions, is the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) model, adopted by successful businesses across Europe and those who aspire to world-class status in their field. When ministers ask us to look outwards and to assess ourselves against the best in the world, how better than with a powerful world-class benchmark?

The EFQM doesn't operate on pre-determined criteria; it functions around a model of how successful organisations perform. It invites participants to propose the kinds of criteria that matter to them, their clients and stakeholders, to measure their own performance year-on-year and to set meaningful targets for the future.

It doesn't ask an individual assessor to come to a decision about one criterion. It requires a panel of selected, well-trained assessors to review the whole organisation on the basis of detailed evidence provided.

The team works as a group of individuals, spending up to 40 hours of detailed review on the evidence, then further substantial time to reaching consensus in its analysis.

The process is a flexible, comprehensive, responsive, reflective, challenging and constructive one, which has already helped to drive up quality at Stow College. We have found a way forward which, we can say with confidence, delivers what it says on the tin.

Bob McGrory is principal of Stow College, Glasgow

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