Commercial quality credentials are being adapted for the public sector. Is your school up to the mark? Al Constantine reports.
Have you ever been IIP-ed or BEM-ed? Have you got your ISO 9000 yet or are you about to be TNT-ed? Or maybe you have Charter Marks on your portals.
Industrial quality standard marks and stamps that were once associated with the structural integrity of toilet seats, hot water bottles or fencing panels are increasingly being adapted to the world of education and are fast becoming widely recognised indicators of schools' reliability, efficiency, levels of customer service and user satisfaction.
This year, to add to Charter Mark, Investors in People award, the Business Excellence Model, ISO 9000 and a host of lesser crests, laurels and tokens of esteem, the government has launched yet another - the TNT Modernising Government Partnership Award - a joint venture between the Cabinet Office and the courier firm TNT, designed to extend multi-agency communication and collaboration.
"It's all part of joined-up government," says Bob Allen-Turl, the award's chief executive at TNT. "This award is designed to improve the quality and responsiveness of the service you are offering and to show how you are improving the footprint of your organisation."
In this case, schools are invited, for a registration fee of pound;10, to submit a short application that demonstrates the continuous development of relations with other services in the community - whether they are other organisations in the public sector, voluntary organisations or partnerships with businesses in the community.
Quality schemes are spreading and while some school managers are yet to have their schools' sense of self-worth ratified by an objective third party, others are well on the way to becoming quality mark junkies.
Headteacher Geraldine Keegan, of St Mary's College, Londonderry, can boast no fewer than 18 quality awards, including a Charter Mark three times over, and is now set to compete for the right to use the TNT logo on the school's headed paper. "It's important to choose the right award," she told The TES.
Keith Rowlands, headteacher at the Dell Primary School in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, must have so many quality logos on his school stationery, it's a wonder there is any space to write his memorandums. In 1997, Dell Primary became the first public sector organisation to win the UK quality award for business excellence (BEM), thus adding to an already impressive list of awards, including the government's Charter Mark, Investors in People award and a regional quality award for business excellence in the Welsh education sector.
Some people see the trend as a ritualistic and mechanical process of accolade hoarding for hoarding's sake. "The more awards there are, the more each one is devalued," said Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of NASUWT, the second largest teachers' union. "The time, fuss and bother spent in competing to secure an extra logo for the school notepaper would be better spent in providing extra resources for the classroom."
Kate Myers, professor of professional development at Keele University, is also wary of the explosion of quality marks among schools and colleges. "Of course it's important to recognise and value the work of teachers and headteachers," she said, "but awards on their own are not enough.
"There has got to be a more coherent message from government. It's no use Tony Blair talking about the forces of conservatism in education on the one hand and then telling teachers how wonderful they are."
Whether or not teaching professionals are getting the message in the new world of quality control, there is no doubt that the numbers competing for this array of badges are rising fast, with Investors in People now covering one third of the UK workforce across both public and private sectors.
"Schools are becoming more and more like businesses," says Peter Brereton, managing director of Partnerships for Learning, a consultancy supporting schools to forge links with partners from the commercial sector. "In many ways, the processes that businesses and schools have to go through are the same."
He argues that the range of quality standards available to schools are ones that parents are increasingly coming to recognise through working in business environments. The logical extension of this growing recognition is that they will come to make key educational choices based on an understanding of their significance.
As businesses look to extend their influence within the public sector through sponsorship deals with schools, the standards offered by the quality schemes are likely to furnish potential investors with a ready-made index of schools' credentials - in management, communication, levels of service provision and end-user satisfaction.
Interestingly, the custodians of the government's latest award, TNT, have coined the phrase "radar logic", denoting the spirit of mutual interest that they hope will characterise the cross-sector partnerships of the future.
Certainly, while developing schools' business acumen and effective communication, TNT will be looking to develop a little of its own in the process. "There are lots of parents and teachers out there who are already involved in business in one way or another," said Bob Allen-Turl, "and we hope that through our involvement they'll come to associate the name TNT with a commitment to quality."
Confusion, however, is likely to reign for a while longer yet and many school end-users are likely to remain as bewildered as Humphrey Bogart's crew in the Caine Mutiny. "On my ship, excellence comes as standard, standard is sub-standard and sub-standard won't be tolerated," says the megalomaniacal captain.
* Additional reporting by Simon Midgley and Tina Orr-Munro