After 13 years of a growing tide of bureaucracy created by an ever-changing array of quangos, people are beginning to question what those organisations do and what effect they have on the quality of work in FE colleges.
Andrew Thompson, head of the new Quality Improvement Agency, is calling for creativity and commitment to replace cynical compliance. His willingness to question the effects of years of bureaucracy and confusion on the energy and professional competence of managers and lecturers in FE is very welcome.
But rationalising the duties of 6,000 bureaucrats in the sector and calling for lecturers to have ownership of quality enhancement is not enough to re-energise those working and learning in colleges.
Compliance has seeped into every corner of the system. From the mind-numbing paper chase of competence-based assessment and its interminable verification procedures, to the prescriptive assignments and specifications of general vocational qualifications, and the relentless targets of Skills for Life tests, teachers and students learn compliance from the first day they open the awarding body's mountain of paperwork.
Laudable aims to make assessment more creative and less selective have degenerated into procedures to ensure that assignments, systems and documents are the same between centres and candidates. Verifiers care more about whether the forms have been signed in the right place than whether the activities leading to achievement were interesting and the assessment fair and robust.
The holy grail of "national standards" makes colleges more worried about conformity than about creating worthwhile teaching and assessment activities. Meeting the demands of the specifications has been reduced to coaching students through the demands of the criteria.
But what goes on in classrooms merely reflects how awarding bodies pass down restrictions and demands from the regulator, the QCA. Inspection, assessment, verification and quality audits all produce the same arid language of tracking, checking, ticking the boxes, cross-referencing, hitting the criteria and plugging the gaps. Everyone is coaching the next level down.
Professional freedom to design teaching and learning activities has been swept away by the orthodoxy of teaching standards and inspectors' ideas about good teaching.
Teachers must make sure they spell out learning outcomes at the start of lessons and plan for differentiation. Lessons must show evidence of "learning" and, since learning means achievement of outcomes and criteria, there is no scope to deviate from the plan.
In this circular compliance, The Plan is Learning and Learning is the Plan.
You couldn't have done better in Stalin's Soviet Union. It does not bode well for freeing teachers and students from the tyranny of official indicators and targets. Before chiding colleges for being too compliant, government bodies need to look at their own contribution to this stifling culture. There is growing evidence that ideas that challenge government policy are often prevented from surfacing.
The fate of the Learning and Skills Development Agency's research report on learning styles is a case in point. Despite huge interest in its findings, it has never been officially launched or debated, partly because it discredits the way in which official bodies promote dubious models of learning styles.
There's a lot of compliance to get rid of. Concerted effort at all levels of the system is needed to help teachers and students exercise more imagination. Some colleges and teacher-training courses still manage to create spaces to think about practice. This takes some doing when limited staff development budgets are spent on preparing for inspection or on exorbitant fees for someone to evangelise about the need to comply with learning styles, emotional intelligence or teaching happiness.
More money needs to be spent on professional development that encourages teachers and managers to question, think and challenge practice. The Centre for Excellence in Leadership, teacher educators and academic researchers could play a prominent role in challenging the effects of compliance with targets. Refusing to meet them would be an even better test of a new anti-compliance culture.
Simply banging heads together among quangos and bureaucrats to sort out their respective roles in quality enhancement is not going to undo 13 years of compliance. Finding a quality enhancement system that resists the pernicious effects of narrow targets and encourages a debate about what should be taught, learned and assessed is a better starting point.
Kathryn Ecclestone is reader in assessment for lifelong learning at the University of Nottingham