Down Under for winners

1st April 2005 at 01:00
The best book on leadership I have ever read is called Born to Win. It was written by John Bertrand, skipper of the Australian yacht which took the America's Cup from the Americans for the first time in 150 years of match racing.

There are three things which are particularly good about it. First, it shows the value of total preparation, down to having enormous loudspeakers installed on the motor launch which towed the yacht Australia II out to the start each day.

They blasted out "Down Under", a wonderfully vulgar but rousing anthem by a band called Men at Work, which was credited with setting back perceptions of the sophistication of the Australian male by a good 20 years.

Second, it shows you never win by doing the same as you have always done.

Australia II had a secret new winged keel whose practical benefit was probably slight but which freaked out the Americans.

Third, it shows that the best way to beat somebody is to learn from them.

Bertrand studied in America and raced boats there before taking on the burden of representing his native Australia.

Something similar was in our minds when the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) organised a study visit to Australia last month. We have been a bit miffed to find our Middle East markets for inspection vanishing because English NVQs have been abandoned for "the Australian system".

We wanted to know what was so good about it. We also wanted to know why nobody has a bad word for Australian training and further education (TAFE - note the order, it is significant), when our poor, wretched colleges are slagged off from breakfast till suppertime.

If we found that out, we did not want to find out alone. In the team we had senior representatives from the Department for Education and Skills, the Learning and Skills Council, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Sector Skills Development Agency and the Apprenticeships Task Force.

We put the hours in and we put the miles in. In one day, our rented light plane covered the equivalent of London to Frankfurt to Paris to Bordeaux and back to Nottingham. We saw sheep-shearing classes in Dubbo - gloriously brought to our notice in the Foster's beer advert - distance-learning in Brisbane and a private provider of research degrees in Adelaide.

With the combined effects of jetlag and long days rounded off by a succession of hospitable dinners, we fought to stay awake through worthy presentations in equally worthy colleges.

We saw "Australian TAFE" the New South Wales way, the Queensland way and the South Australia way, and found them all to be different. We saw much that was terribly familiar, only to discover it had changed subtly under a southern sun. We laboured but, by God, we learned.

So what are the ingredients for world reputation in TAFE? The first is focus. Note that acronym again: TAFE. Nothing in there about preparing kids for school-leaving certificates and higher education. This is all about jobs, jobs and more jobs, with a side-helping of community learning.

It looked to us as though, to be understood and celebrated for what they really are, English FE and specialist vocational colleges needed to be separated from sixth-form colleges.

The second is rationalisation. Ten years ago 130 New South Wales colleges were corralled into 10 "institutes", the largest of which serves an area more than twice the size of the UK. The 10 institute principals sit down with their boss, the director general in the state government in Sydney, to run the system. Bureaucracy-busting in a big way, but perhaps not the sort its advocates among English principals had in mind.

The third is system. Credit accumulation and transfer works. You get your module certificate wherever you are, and module completion - preparing for jobs, remember - is the success measurement for the institutes. And data management is so accurate and so up-to-date that taught hours, costs and all the rest are reviewed weekly. Unders and overs are traded among institute principals when they meet.

So much for the good things. The downside is that this is not really a national system at all but eight state or territory systems rather tenuously allied, with adhesive provided by some national funding. There is an almighty scrap going on now, as the federal Government tries to leverage its contribution to take greater control from the states.

The second and biggest downside is a lack of real quality control. Awards are only as good as the organisation which provides them. That could be an institute, a blue-chip employer like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or the most tinpot outfit you ever saw which had somehow gone through the box-ticking process to achieve approved status.

Nobody knows how good the quality of delivery is. They would rather like an ALI of their own, provided it was not called an inspectorate.

So why is this system a world leader? Because it plays "Down Under" on big speakers. Because it brushes aside problems. Because it sells itself with confidence and panache. That is what we learned. Now to do something about it.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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