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Masters of the machine

I once organised an international conference for design students on creativity. To leaven the presentations from visual creators I asked the poet Seamus Heaney to give a reading.

He was magical. He conjured pictures in the air that could be understood even by those whose English was a second or third language. Students always ask the question you always wanted to but never dared: "How do you do that?"

Heaney's answer, as I recall, was along these lines: "I work every day from nine till two. I can't do anything unless I have a clean yellow, lined legal pad and six sharpened pencils. When I've finished, I have a lot of waste paper and some phrases, some ideas, which I might be able to build on."

The marriage of perspiration and inspiration that Heaney described is on my mind at the moment. On November 18, I present my chief inspector's annual report to education minister Ivan Lewis. It has to be clear. It has to be fair. My commentary has to pick out the half-dozen or so things which realistically can be fixed in the coming year to make everyone's life a little better and a little easier. And if I'm to do my work really well, I have to create some vivid, memorable phrases which fire the imagination.

So I've neatly arranged my quaintly named Pukka Pad on my desk, knowing all too well that while its 160 blank pages remain empty they will haunt my sleep. I have placed the wastebin conveniently by my right foot and watched it fill with balled-up false starts.

"Primitive!" you say. Agreed. But, you see, behind me and the Pukka Pad lies THE MACHINE.

We crank up the machine in January each year. I imagine the machine as looking a bit like the engine-room of the ferry on which you used to cross the Humber. It was hot. It was noisy. There was the whoosh of steam and the gliding thump of massive brass and steel thingummyjigs. And when we were moored up safe in Lincolnshire, the white boiler-suited chief engineer wiped his hands on a hank of cotton-waste and said "Another mission successfully accomplished".

The first master of the machine is an heroic adult learning inspection manager, Peter Walser, who supervises the whole grisly business. Beside him each spring stand the consultant designers and the multimedia wizards, who are distressingly young and forbiddingly confident.

They lay deadlines on us poor stokers with a confidence and firmness that make the eyes water.

Then come our in-house data analysts. "This is what the learning and skills sector looks like in May; by the end of June when we close the books on 2002-03 it'll be like this." Away with the numbers-teams of inspectors who add their perceptions on what the year looked like, gleaned from 1,000 reports, 10,000 nights in anonymous hotels, 1,000,000 miles on the roads of England.

By early August the machine has created endless reams of STUFF. The core team meets under the stern eye of engineer Walser. I am in admiring attendance and am sent off to a cabin on the lower decks to edit and repair some of the bits nobody quite understands.

Much whirring, whizzing and gurgling. Out pop the key issues for the year.

The lists of best and worst providers. The questions you want the Adult Learning Inspectorate to answer. "Is government policy helping or hindering?"; "What worked and what didn't?"; "What do I have to do to come out topsides on inspection?" By early autumn, probably 200 of the ALI's 250 staff have served the machine. The main text, to be published on disk, is 135,000 words long.

Supporting it are all 795 inspection reports published during the year, with hyperlinks enabling readers to test the evidence for conclusions against judgments made earlier on individual providers. And all to be summed up by me in, perhaps, 7,000 words of cogent analysis and ringing prose.

Now that's when I get primitive. Like Heaney, to get my neurones connecting quicker than hyperlinks, I need the help of superstition. the Pukka Pad, the pencils all in a line, just so.

If you know a better way of sucking the juice out of 135,000 words "summarising" 795 reports, just let me know. And to add to the torture, I have to boil down again what I've boiled down already into my commentary, to make a script for the talking-head video on the report disk and for my speech to Ivan Lewis, my board and you.

"Another mission successfully completed." Well maybe. If it works, if it all sounds convincing, then it's down to the machine, some magic and a light dash of good fortune. I can't do without the machine. But, in the end, what's in my mind is Heaney changing the way we see the world - with pictures in the air.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of adult learning

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