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To Moon and back in a quest for quality

Former chef inspector of the Training Standards Council, David Sherlock, has a new agenda, Ngaio Crequer reports

David Sherlock is fond of detail. Why else would he work out that his inspectors had driven more than 1.6 million business miles - the equivalent of three round trips to the Moon - in their work of assessing the quality of the country's work-based learning?

The former chief inspector of the Training Standards Council is about to transfer his miles of experience to the Adult Learning Inspectorate. The ALI is England's single inspectorate of adult training and education and Mr Sherlock, its chief inspector, leads the first inspections next week.

It is a mammoth undertaking. He is responsible for inspecting all work-based learning for 16-18-year-olds and all adults; education in colleges for those over 19; adult and community education; learning in prisons; and the training provided under the New Deal. His inspectors will also look at learning provided through the University for Industry.

He is keen to tell people they should not worry about being inspected:

"More inspection does not mean you are bad, and less of it does not mean you are good. Inspection will always be with us."

And he wants to move it on. It is no longer like the McDougall's flour ad, where everyone is lined up in a row like soldiers on parade.

"Everyone is responsible for quality. We are all involved in making goods and delivering services. The inspection process is not just something you can add on," he says.

He is also convinced that inspection is a tool that helps to drive up standards, although he says it is still too early to show that self-assessment achieves this aim.

During his four years with the TSC, training providers have shown rising approval of its work. And this is not because of more favourable grading.

The proportion of providers with one or more unsatisfactory grades has also risen over the period. But more than 85 per cent have achieved satisfactory or better grades when re-inspected.

One aspect of his new job that he is looking forward to is inspecting the quality of privately-funded training, on a commission basis.

"Very often training is takin place, but it is invisible to the employees. We can look at it and we will be able to give the company the assurance that its money is well spent. We will be taking this up with the CBI and the TUC.

"We deal with companies that provide some state-funded and some privately-funded training. There is no good reason why we couldn't do the lot. Until we can bring this private work into the public domain, we won't know as a country how we are doing in lifelong learning."

Much of the work inspected by the TSC was poor. He witnessed mergers, even closures of businesses.

"But it was - and is - our job to tell it like it is, whether it is good, bad or whether it is getting worse. We have to be rigorous.

"There is a huge variety of standards in work-based learning. And the best is very good".

Now Mr Sherlock is all ready to go. He leads a team of 120 full-time inspectors, around 850 associate inspectors and more than 80 office staff. Much attention has focused on the relationship the ALI will have with the Office for Standards in Education, as they will carry out joint inspections in colleges.

The two bodies have agreed a common inspection framework and ironed out a few teething problems. OFSTED is to share a single register of associate inspectors with the ALI and will use its specially developed software.

"I have known Mike Tomlinson (the OFSTED chief inspector) for a long time. We had hoped to do a joint press conference and only time and the pressure of work stopped it.

"We have a good, candid relationship. We are on the phone whenever necessary, every two or three weeks. It is to be expected that we would have different world views. He is a pragmatist. We will make our relationship work."

He regards it as a great privilege to be an inspector, and he certainly brings great warmth to his job. In his final report to the TSC he said: "We have the chance every day to be made aware that there is nobody whose circumstances are hopeless.

"There is goodness, talent and potential in each and every human being. It is the job of an inspector to help people to get their chances and to make the best of them. Nothing could be more important or more rewarding."

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