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Sentenced by the checklist

A year or so ago I did the unthinkable. I abandoned the higher reaches of strategic planning (safe in the knowledge that the Learning and Skills Council was now in charge of that), stopped attending national conferences on not very interesting topics, refused to respond to surveys, questionnaires, consultation documents and other attempts to pick my limp brains, left my comfortable office and re-entered the classroom. As a teacher. You will not be surprised to hear, however, that I ended up learning more than I taught.

The first major lesson concerned the unchanging lot of the part-time teacher in an FE college. "Visiting" teachers are the workhorses of FE.

Responsive colleges depend on teachers who can vary their hours from week to week, year to year, and teach shortage subjects for a third of the hourly wage of a call-out locksmith in the evening and at weekends. They do it for reasons as varied as those that bring the students to their classes, and their reward is a place in heaven and a visit from inspectors.

It can be a lonely job, often during unsociable hours in remote centres where no manager's foot ever treads. Colleges have made determined efforts to improve the lot of these worthy folk, but the iron laws of economics and the cold dark English winter still mean that the only college staff that many evening-class teachers meet is a caretaker, rattling his keys as a subtle hint that he wants to lock up while there's still some drinking time left.

The second lesson was about the bureaucracy of assessment. I was teaching GCSE English, a subject I hadn't taught before, to a mixed-age evening class. It was an interesting course and the college-produced teaching materials were superb. The trouble was twofold: it wasn't really an English course and it had more than 200 assessment criteria for the coursework alone. The course couldn't decide whether it was a philosophy, sociology, politics, media studies, literary criticism or cultural studies programme.

The poor teacher, or at least this inadequate one, found himself wrestling with an attempt to teach the use of the comma by means of an article on the effects of French imperialism on small north-African communities. Every student produced heart-felt accounts of the justification for a popular uprising, but none of them got the commas in the right place.

But the real problem was the assessment burden and the ludicrous attempt to create pseudo-scientific assessment descriptors for every minor improvement in writing, reading, listening and speaking skills. First, the assessment burden. Each student had to produce five pieces of work for assessment.

Each piece could be taken through three drafts, each of which required the teacher's comments on areas where they could be improved.

That's 15 pieces of assessment per student and there were 18 students in the group. The GCSE maths class next door calculated this for me at 270 pieces of work per class, and some teachers had four classes. This works out at six days of marking per class or a full month if you teach four.

And that is just the formally assessed work. Add to that the task of retrieving, returning, re-retrieving the work and recording the marks to ensure all the different types of work and assessment criteria have been covered and met. By this stage, of course, all the students had abandoned any attempt to understand what was required of them and returned to the less difficult task of analysing Alan Bennett's use of irony in exposing the sociological infrastructure of 1940s Yorkshire.

The assessment criteria are a real hoot, however. Just look at this one and apply it to the piece you are now reading: "writing which explains a point of view or informs matters of fact is well organised and structured". You might think my article is not quite of that high standard, so what about "writing which is informative or explains the thoughts and feelings of a candidate on a chosen topic engages and sustains the reader's interest."

No? Not feeling engaged or sustained? The fact is that the first criterion would have got me a "D" grade and the second, astonishingly, an "E". There is a bottom criterion that says "can stay awake for five minutes and hold a pen in at least one hand", but I'd probably fail on that too, at least on Friday night.

Nowhere, however, is there one that asks the candidate to write in sentences, spell correctly and use appropriate punctuation. Speaking skills had to be addressed, too. So when Sally asked me what a verb might be when it was at home, I found myself checking the assessment list to see where I could place her contribution on the grading scale and she never did find out what a verb was.

The outcome of all this well-intentioned stuff is baffled students, exhausted teachers, a few more or less well-executed attempts at personal expression, but not necessarily an improvement in standards as we think of them. So a question to Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Are we busy busting the wrong bureaucracy? (Note the alliteration, students.)

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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