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Focus on the big picture

Nearing the end of the penultimate year of the first four-year cycle of Adult Learning Inspectorate and Office for Standards in Education inspections, it seems a good moment for pondering. What's going well? What do we want to change for the second round of inspections, starting from April 2005?

In the "going well" box, ever the optimist, I put a growing understanding of what inspection and quality improvement are all about. The green shoots of comprehension were given a good start by the Prime Minister's Office for Public Service Reform, which ruled that the ALI is not a regulator. We do not issue licences to operate. Providers of adult learning are free to ply their profession whether we think they are any good or not; quite right too if they can persuade someone to pay. Freedom from regulatory responsibilities allows me some choice over what inspection of adult learning really should be for and that, of course, is helping providers to give a better service to learners.

The ALI and its partners are already doing a lot to improve the learning and skills sector.

The Common Inspection Frame work is the clearest listing of critical factors for success we have ever had: "focus on benefit to the individual learner; achievement a priority; managers' efforts concentrated on optimising the quality of learning".

Mandatory self-assessment helps providers systematically to evaluate performance and build consensus among staff and customers.

Inspection independently validates self-assessment and winnows out priorities.

Inspection grading and delineation of adequacy or inadequacy clearly identify the stronger and weaker parts of the sector and of each provider.

ALI's new knowledge-sharing network, Excalibur, highlights good practice and good practitioners so that the lessons learned by the strong are available to the weak.

There is nothing utopian in all this. It is demonstrably working, with both inspection grades and adult learners' achievements on the way up. So why change anything? We do have practical issues to address. Some of our customers in government want to see a greater emphasis on job outcomes from vocational courses in the Common Inspection Framework. We can look at that.

Although the framework is a creation of the Learning and Skills Act and is aimed at over-16s, some see it as having value for schools. Provided that its primary purpose is not compromised, we can look at that, too. But I detect no great hunger for radical change.

We also want to improve the fit between inspection and adult learning. The 160-year tradition of inspection has grown out of schools. In schools, pupils stay for five or more years; they are taught in groups large enough to ensure that the key variable in learner achievement is the performance of the teacher; they are taught according to a national curriculum which is relatively stable and geographically uniform. These are perfect conditions for the well-established "snapshot" approach to produce a true image.

Adult learning, on the other hand, often consists of short or part-time courses. For many, it goes in fits and starts, according to whatever else is going on in life and at work. It is either individually differentiated, according to the prior learning and experience of each member of a class, or it is done alone at work or in front of a computer at home. There are more than 2,000 vocational and occupational awards, quite apart from academic qualifications and many programmes which lead to no qualification at all.

The short, snapshot inspection can look terribly contrived as a medium for capturing adult learning. The standard college inspection, lasting a week or two, usually samples adequately the provision which can be found readily on-campus, during the normal working day. That, mostly, is level 3 (A-level equivalent) provision for 16 to 18-year-olds. And alongside an inadequate sample of adult learning, the snapshot approach challenges organisations to keep on with business as usual while 30 inspectors observe their teaching sessions, monopolise their managers and occupy the best room in the place.

There has to be a better way.

We think that better way is inspection based on a series of small-scale visits, over time, sampling different areas of the work of a big organisation in the manner most appropriate to each one. We could follow the development of sample groups of adult learners or individuals over time; moving pictures to supplement the snapshot. We could phase the inspections of parts of organisations according to their place in the internal quality-evaluation cycle and prioritise issues according to the perceptions of managers and the funding bodies, as well as our own.

We think that we could get a more realistic picture of adult learning, with less disruption.

If "continuous improvement" is about raising absolute standards by a percentage point or two each year, it is at least as much about shrinking the gap between the best bits of the sector and of each organisation and the rest. It is about moving the weaker towards the stronger.

We call this "The Right Touch". Right for all, not just for some.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of adult learning

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