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Listen and learn

Who is best placed to judge a teacher's capability? Is it the manager who occasionally sits at the back of the room for half an hour to make sure the monkey is still capable of performing his tricks? Or is it the Ofsted inspector (who may or may not have been a teacher) who sees him perform for 20 minutes one year in every four?

Surely the answer has to be "none of the above". The people best placed to pass judgement on a teacher's competence must be those who see him perform on a daily basis: the students. These days, of course, they do have their say. Just as you are now asked to "rate your experience" every time you buy an item or use a service, so is the modern student required to tick those boxes marked with smiley or grumpy faces at least three times every academic year.

And it's not only the quality of teaching they are asked to pronounce on. I have just received a printout of my tutor group's responses to the autumn survey: some 30 questions demand an answer, dealing with things such as the college's enrichment programme or how safe students feel in the corridors.

But of those 30 questions, at least three-quarters relate to teaching, pastoral care or other areas I am responsible for. This year, as every year, I pored over the bars of the bar chart, hoping to see that the majority of rows were black or grey ("agree completely" or "mostly") rather than the dreaded white, which means that when faced with statements such as "I get help from my teachers when I ask for it", at least some students have said that they don't.

As a teacher what you would really like to hear is that everything is wonderful, enabling you to drift off into some gooey miasma of self-congratulation. When that isn't the case - like every year - you want to be able to blame someone else, probably a manager, for the perceived shortcomings.

The managers themselves also want surveys that are dense with approval, so they can proudly proclaim on their publicity how happy their students are with the college of their choice. When that doesn't happen, as so often it doesn't, they want to be able to use the answers as the basis for an action plan, complete with ambitious - and wholly unrealistic - targets for future improvement. This can then be shown to whoever may ask (otherwise known as Ofsted), demonstrating that they acknowledge the problem and are doing all in their power to address it.

What the government of the day wants from all this testing of opinion is pretty much what the teachers and the managers want. Then it can show to its own Ofsted (otherwise known as the media) that everything in the world of further education is getting better all the time.

For my part, I have always thought it right that we ask students what they think, and that when they tell us we take notice of what they say. Sometimes I feel that it might be fun to follow the lead of RateMyProfessors.com, the website that asks students to also give their teachers a "hotness" rating. Then I look in the mirror and think that maybe it might not be such a good idea after all.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer in an FE college in London.

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