Call a halt to audit culture of shame

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
Chief inspector David Sherlock would do well to be less comfortable with the monitoring process, writes Dave Brockington

I understand where David Sherlock is coming from in his description of the comfort that auditors offer him in his role as chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate ("Auditors who keep us nice", TES May 21).

His comfort comes from compliance with the audit process.

Naturally, if all the correct boxes are ticked, the external monitors and funders will not impose punishment. That is no solace in the face of the imposition of what many, throughout the public sector, see as an inappropriate bureaucracy and a deadening burden.

Some paradigms need to be challenged here. We desperately need to move away from management and monitoring systems predicated on highlighting error and using the associated blame and shame to "motivate" behaviour. There are alternatives to these negative systems, such as seeking what is right in an organisation and building upon it. This distinctly positive focus encourages a habit of mind that searches for organisational successes and provides a framework for building on these.

Underpinning the current negative paradigms is the associated notion that with information technology you can appropriately ask for more and more management information, and by yesterday. This is also fatally flawed. Then there is the underlying belief that such management information actually yields an accurate picture of progress to x or y target when the cynical reality seems to include manipulation of information to fit the requirements.

Of course, responsible people will not eschew accountability. Those of us who have lived through the Thatcher years of racing managerialism know that their own commitment to public service has been largely replaced by a mechanistic framework of compliance.

This framework is predicated on all those building blocks that Chris Woodhead's style so ably symbolised when he was chief inspector at the Office for Standards in Education: naming and shaming, highlighting failure, a culture of blame in which individuals are afraid to challenge and, in the case of the external audit process, assuming guilt and error as the fundamental design features of the procedures.

Oddly enough, some of us have found all this to be deeply offensive. What is needed is a less punitive national system for the quite proper need to be accountable through monitoring. However, we are dealing here with the Emperor's new clothes syndrome - everyone is too afraid of blame including, it seems, David Sherlock, to call a halt and expose the naked and empty system for what it is, a parasitic virus that is taking over and infecting the body itself.

The Emperor is naked because very few, apart perhaps from the auditors themselves, believe that the so-called "out-turn" statistics can mean much, especially in the context of the well-known routine scramble to present the statistics in the most favourable light.

Instead of crying out loud that this is a ridiculous and unsustainable burden, the players in the game whimper and cringe, or sycophantically buckle down for fear of being blamed or bullied for telling the truth.

The profound need to move away from these negative organisational principles, so deeply embedded into the fabric of public-sector activity, leads me to an interim solution. All contracts awarded by the Learning and Skills Council for teaching and learning should be given directly to the KMPGs and the Deloittes of the world. They are, after all, the ones who believe in all the filling-in of boxes and would presumably be good at it.

And then, in my brave new world, the auditors would come to honour the teachers, tutors, and managers because they would not be able to fill in the wretched boxes if the substantive teaching and learning, for which they would be directly responsible, did not take pride of place. That might just shift the focus back to the dog wagging the audit tail rather than the reverse.

Such honouring might wither the blame and some of the insulting assumptions of the current national audit regime, such as the procedural assumption of error and guilt. As for David Sherlock, whose weighty responsibilities lead him to find solace from bureaucracy, I fear that, like poor old Macbeth, he assassinates himself and merely commends the ingredients of the poisoned chalice to his own lips. That is a real shame.

Dave Brockington has just left full-time employment following a 30-year career in HE and FE

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