Don't laugh, please - we're inspectors

5th May 2000 at 01:00
But a few smiles and a human touch would ease the pain, argues Colin Flint...and he's serious.

Terry Melia, the former chief inspector, used to tell a joke about two road accidents that happened outside an FEcollege. In one a squirrel was run over; in the other an inspector was hit. There were skid marks only in the case of the squirrel.

There was not much to laugh about at Solihull College last November when the inspectors came to call - and there's not a lot now after six months of reflection. They had thanked us assiduously for the care and courtesy all the staff had shown during the process that stretched over a month, but that was as far as the pleasantries went.

I knew we would not do well after my briefing meeting with the inspectorate team on the Monday morning. Most of them glowered at me as I prattled on about the college and our mission. Dennis Skinner would have had a warmer reception at a Conservative party conference; Sammy Davis Jr would have gone down better with the Ku Klux Klan.

In fact, some may not have been human at all, we thought, but replicants, as in Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, brilliantly manufactured in some secret precision engineering shop in Coventry, word perfect in the rubric of BS5750 and the FE curriculum circa 1985, but with no heart and dedicated to erasing any tendencies to fraternise with the enemy.

It wasn't really like that, and this of course is all just good-natured fun. We didn't do terribly well and we didn't do terribly badly. Some of the report is a fair assessment of our deficiencies and a little bit of it is quite helpful, but it is difficult - for me and for a lot of other people in colleges - to answer the question of what inspections are actually for.

Much of the report could have been written in Coventry, or anywhere, without anyone coming to the college at all. We were found wanting on our levels of achievement, retention statistics and failure to identify a shortfall in funding for courses at a sufficiently early date.

Achievement and retention are steadily improving from a low in 199697; 199899 was the first time we had failed to achieve our target. But the acceptable comparisons are with national averages and benchmarks. That's the system.

I believe it is time we questioned both the system and the process, though I am not optimistic that any college-inspired debate will have much effect on what is planned for April 2001. I am well aware, too, tha this will be dismissed by some as whingeing. We have, after all, an ambivalent attitude to inspection. A few grade ones for us and we think everything's fine: fours or fives for others and it's schadenfreude all the way.

The system is obtrusive, invasive and hugely disruptive. It is also increasingly Stalinist. It prevents us doing what we are here to do for far too long. We supply hundredweights of paper and inspectors don't have time to read it. We self-assess till the blood runs. Inspectors see a few lessons - in our case 116 out of roughly 4,500 in that week - and write their reports after three-and-a-half days.

They look at a small proportion of work funded by the Further Education Funding Council and produce a report which purports to be a balanced picture of the work of the whole college. It takes less than a week and it lasts for four years. (Yes, I know about the simultaneous Training and Skills Council inspections: they actually just add to the burden and encourage cross-infection.) The process can only be, in the way it is conceived and executed, a reversion towards the norm. And there isn't one.

It is fatuous to apply the same methodologies to large inner-city general FE colleges as to more selective institutions which do not make serious efforts to widen participation. If colleges set themselves the task of achieving inclusivity and seek to remedy the desperate deficiencies of the national education system, are they not quite likely to have rather more non-achievers? Are we not sufficiently penalised by an inflexible qualifications framework and a misconceived and distorted funding methodology? Whose values underpin this process? Whose strategic plan is this?

We saw no interest in our attempts to position for the future, little acknowledgement of efforts to reach disadvantaged students and to contribute to national targets, no engagement with our distinctive approach to student services. We were penalised for failing to spend money in buildings we will soon vacate.

Inspections do not have enough engagement with the institution's staff. There was little or none with the students. We saw virtually no evidence that inspectors are allowed to show a sense of humour - which would help. The best bit of the week was when a six-foot chicken walked into the inspectors' base collecting for Children in Need. You will be pleased to know they did contribute.

Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College

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