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Survival of the friendliest

Juanita Almond finds inspection brought out the worst in colleges.

The Further Education Funding Council inspection round has nearly finished, and many people may be left wondering exactly what all the fuss was about, and - more importantly - will things be different next time around?

Fuss there certainly was and, of course, some fuss was inevitable given the pressure that such an unfamiliar and crucial inspection process can bring. Unfortunately, the pressure measured on the FE barometer immediately before inspections showed the needle to be jammed on full-scale frenzy as many colleges found themselves somewhere between a rock and a hard place. The inspection threatened to expose any institutional weaknesses, yet many endemic weakness could not be corrected in such a short space of time.

The survival techniques adopted by most colleges are remarkably similar, and I present here a small compilation of common inspection experiences.

An extraordinary number of cash-strapped colleges threw their limited budgets at cosmetic improvements and activities calculated to impress the inspectors. This habit was started by some colleges quite early on, and spread like a forest fire.

The tales of frenetic tidying and cleaning before an inspection are endless: dusty, long-neglected corners suddenly received special, unprecedented attention, with shelves and cupboards appearing unexpectedly overnight. One disgruntled member of a newly - but selectively - redecorated northern college complained: "It's worse than when Maggie Thatcher visited and they painted all the litter bins."

In a sector not renowned for marvellous hospitality and lavish entertainment, the inspector was courted by most colleges quite unconscionably. Almost always, senior college management commandeered the very best rooms for the inspectors; often these were one of the few carpeted areas.

There are stories of special percolators being purchased to make them fresh coffee and the production of home-made biscuits and cordon bleu food. Everything was aimed to please, as colleges appeared to confuse the role of a neutral inspector with that of an important major client.

The irony of the deferential treatment paid to the inspectors was not lost on the academic staff. Many comments were made, particularly about "rolls of red carpet" and one member of staff complained: "I'm surprised the principal's kid doesn't appear, curtsey, and present one of them with a bouquet."

In all the colleges, the very exacting demands for documentary evidence led to such a relentless use of the photocopier that, collectively, these machines could have demolished a medium-sized forest somewhere in Upper Bavaria. Massive photocopying budgets were set aside and production was so prolific that special rooms were required to house the residue of all this woodland. Special files and personnel were then required to classify, index, reference and cross-reference it.

The obsession with paper soon led many institutions to use paper production as a measure of good administrative processes. In one organisation, quantitative techniques were perfected to such an extent that managers had a precise figure for the number of pieces of paper they were required to produce. This had the effect of bringing the numerically challenged close to a nervous breakdown.

Nearly all colleges were haunted by the spectre of the lost inspector. The accurate, up-to-date master timetable is the ideal subscribed to by many colleges but achieved by few. Timetabling staff have long been frustrated by perverse lecturers who unofficially re-arrange their timetables at whim: sometimes they move to a completely new room through complex exchanges or even straightforward squatting.

Many fraught managers spent a considerable amount of pre-inspection time checking and re-checking timetables while their more realistic colleagues gave up and prepared a series of damage limitation strategies instead. One incident details how a manager engaged an inspector for half an hour in increasingly trivial and meaningless conversation to prevent him visiting a class where the lecturer had been reported as missing.

It took all that time for his colleague to locate the absentee in a nearby photocopying room and push her back through the classroom door. If, when the bewildered inspector was suddenly released, he felt that he had just escaped the clutches of Basil Fawlty, he was probably closer to the truth than he realised.

The anxiety to avoid the vision of a lost and choleric inspector led a college with a not so user-friendly site to draw up a whole series of new floor plans. Put up in haste just before the inspection, they were not read at leisure until just after it. It was then that they were all found to be upside down!

Conflicting opinions of the inspector's role extended to the staffroom, too. When some said that the inspectors seemed "normal, sane people" with a grasp of the operating problems, the seasoned staff countered these comments with "Well, that's a well- known ploy" and spoke of the enemy within, cautioning careless talk could cost points.

Fear of failing the inspection led to reports of some eccentric and mildly amusing behaviour by heads of departments, too. During the inspection countdown in one organisation, a head of department sat in her office seriously discussing how the staff that she "knew were awful" could be "encouraged to be off" during inspection week, while another was spotted, clad in a baseball hat and old jeans, clambering on a chair to paint the departmental noticeboard.

It is not too clear how much the newly-painted buildings, fresh coffee, home-made biscuits and plush carpeted offices affected the outcome of the inspections, nor whether so many trees died in vain.

Whether the inspectors were the FEFC bloodhounds that colleges rationally expected, the pit bull terriers they irrationally feared, or the luxury-loving poodles they would have infinitely preferred, is probably now academic. For most colleges the inspections are over for four years. The funding squeezes are the new reality and with the 2020 vision of hindsight, would so many colleges have spent so much on window-dressing?

Edited by Ian Nash

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