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Release the flow of progress and leave them smiling

I HAVE never much cared for St Paul. How the worthy folk of Rome, Corinth and those other scattered outposts of Christianity must have blenched at the sight of the postman bringing yet another packet of finger-wagging good advice. But I make an exception for the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. With a swift smack of the very best advice, Saul becomes Paul and life changes, never to be the same again. Most of us will have experienced such moments at least once and, for many, they come again and again.

Let me share one or two of mine.

It is November 1977. Bangladesh. I am standing on a sand bar in the River Ganges, the site of a refugee camp which is home to 10,000 people. They have been displaced and impoverished by the war of liberation a couple of years before, as well as by the usual floods and famine.

I meet an old woman, standing in front of her shelter of branches and leaves. She has a wrap of ragged cotton which is both dress and bedding. At her feet are her only possessions: an aluminium pot, three or four tiny glass jars containing spices, a handful of rice on a leaf. For the first time in my life, aged about 30, I understand what poverty means.

Without help this woman can survive perhaps a day or two. Our cars, houses, all-weather clothing, fresh water supply, freezer, fridge and cupboards full of food will keep us alive for how long if the country falls into chaos? Thirty days? Sixty? Ninety, even? Then you are precisely 30, 60 or 90 times as rich as the old woman.

Same time. Same place. I am holding hands with ten children, one for each finger. I am leaving. A child is pushed forward to give me a present. It is a crudely printed portrait of the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, covered in cellophane and framed with strips of split bamboo. I have it still. I treasure it.

I realise that my own absolute need for poetry and art is not just a pleasurable eccentricity but an expression of a universal need for connection with your culture. It is the echo of the fossilised and only-remaining footsteps of the earliest humankind from Lake Turkana, which sent shivers up my spine many years later in the Nairobi museum. Culture remains when all else is gone, to join us to grandparents, to our people a century ago, to our shared humanity a thousand millennia ago.

I am chairing an academic board meeting. We are in an art and design school where the usual conventions of higher education, that conversation is inseparable from frontal assault, are remarkably well developed.

Nevertheless, I am having a hard time getting anybody to say anything. The issue is contentious and important to everyone round the table. I set out arguments, I persuade, I cajole, I suggest options. Nothing. No word, no unmistakable surge of shared body language. After yet another painful pause in my monologue, a voice says: "You've got the power. You decide."

Another lightning bolt. Leadership, yes. Responsibility, yes. But power? I had never thought of the principal's job like that. The realisation that it is both boss and scapegoat; that, sometimes, just occasionally, it is a leader's job to relieve others of the responsibility of decision, leaving them free to complain, to mend fences with those who lose out, has stayed with me.

So, has all this any more significance than the patchwork which is me? Possibly. Am I saying that an Adult Learning Inspectorate report is an epistle in anything other than the linguistic sense? Certainly not. Am I saying that inspection is a means to damascene conversion? Maybe sometimes, if it is done well.

What I am saying is that the good inspector must understand and do three things.

First, the job is not just to watch and listen. I am always outraged when I see portrayals of the inspector sitting at the back of the class, looking at the teacher and scribbling busily at the clipboard. It is to see and to hear. And that means getting close to learners and being open to new perceptions gained from them.

Second, the job is not just to apply the Common Inspection Framework slavishly and compare achievement data in this provider with national averages or targets. It is to gain a cultural understanding of the organisation and of those who study in it and to form a judgment about what reasonably can be achieved. Learning is not a matter of statistics but of the capacity of people to grow in any given set of circumstances.

As national data improve, many providers' natural impulse is to compare each organisation's performance with the average: "The national median is 35 per cent achievement; we achieve 37 per cent so we must be grade 2".

Sorry, no deal. A one-in-three chance of achieving is bad news for any learner, but let's debate what we might expect to achieve and how it could be made better.

Third, the job is to leave the provider ready and willing to move on. That means giving any bad news clearly. It means cutting through the accommodations people make for one another's shortcomings over time. It means removing the rock in the stream, releasing the flow of progress, even if the immediate result is resentment and annoyance. And, as the old comedians used to say, if possible "Leave them smiling".

To inspect, just as to live fully, is to be prepared for surprise, for shock and for delight.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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