The goose and the golden egg

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
That sensitive soul, Pascal, once apologised to a friend for writing him a long letter, having had no time for a shorter one. How I do sympathise!

This month, we've given birth to the second edition of the common inspection framework. It has taken a year to deliver a simpler, more elegant version with two fewer questions. We've also spawned my chief inspector's annual report, with me licking my pencil to a stub to boil down God knows how many reports into a 9,000-word commentary. Many's the time I say a silent prayer of thanks to the unfortunate schoolmaster who taught me to analyse, parse and precis for O-level English language.

Two directors from the Adult Learning Inspectorate, Nicky Perry and Denis McEnhill, are the only members of the team which produced the original common inspection framework who took part in writing the new one. I draw comfort of a kind that I'm the only chief inspector to have had a hand in both. What none of you out there knows is the drama behind the measured prose. Take something simple like the use of the word "learner", to cut the clutter and the hierarchy out of "studentpupiltraineeclientinmate, and "provider" instead of "collegeschoolemployercentreesta-blishment". We thought we were striking a blow for literary elegance. We thought we were striking a blow for "parity of esteem". We even liked the word "provider"; it reminded us of solid, reassuring fishing boats in some West Country harbour, with names like "Resurgam" and "Silver Harvest" and - "Provider".

But as soon as our back is turned, what happens in the supposedly democratic world of further education? Someone comes up with "colleges and other providers". Someone whispers in our ears: "We all say 'student' now, you know; so much more dignified." Not if you are a prisoner or a jobseeker, it isn't, Sunshine.

You also know nothing about the pain behind the launch of these humble government documents. Last year, I faced the challenge of trying to explain my report to Natasha Kaplinski on BBC breakfast television in three minutes flat. Not only was it 7.00am. Not only was I well dusted with face powder and full of BBC coffee and croissants. It also turned out that I was the only man in Britain who had never before seen the glorious Natasha, let alone met her, and didn't know that she was a "sex goddess". I was plagued for months afterwards by leering elderly males who would sidle up as if trying to sell me something for the weekend, and say "Cor! You sat next to that Monica Lewinsky".

It may be that Monica would have fared better if Bill had restricted himself to sitting beside her, but I can affirm, here and now, that Monica and Natasha are not one and the same. Their only link is a distantly Slavic surname and the latter, at least, is a straight up and down, hard-working journalist. Had this been clear at the time it would have saved me from receiving some steamy, anonymous hate-mail, which now resides in the Ali HR manager's file marked "Fruit Nut".

At least the chief inspector's annual report is my report. I send it out to interested parties a few days before the launch and, grind their teeth as some may, none can dispute that the law requires me to say my piece, undeterred by the irritation of others. Not so the common inspection framework. That is the product not only of Nicky and Denis, but of their counterparts at Ofsted too. "Ah ha!" I hear you cry. "Now he's going to spill the beans." No he isn't. The drafting team has pursued its labours with goodwill, good temper and the odd giggle.

No, what makes amending the common inspection framework a pain is our constituencies. Behind the Office for Standards in Education's ambassadors are gathered the claque crying out for more references to regular attendance, spiritual growth and the moral ethos. Behind Ali's are those demanding more on employability, including an inclination to get up earlier and attend to matters of personal hygiene. The Tower of Babel ain't in it.

The only thing that makes a decent result possible is that Ali and Ofsted are separate entities and each can blame the other for leaving stuff out.

"Of course we would have more in it about child protection but they said elderly judges attending classes in Catalan might be offended." Or, "Of course we would have put something in about the primacy of employers'

interests that would have put Gradgrind to shame, but they insisted infant schools were more about education for education's sake."

Old Pascal only had half the story. If you want it short and sweet, you need time and tension. Wait long enough and the conflicting audiences will pluck out everything but the irreducible essence. When you read these things, think Very Bald Goose lays Golden Egg, and you won't be far wrong.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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