The insiders' view of adult inspection

27th June 2008 at 01:00
BOOK REVIEW: Forget its formal title, two former inspectors write of the real value of education

BOOK REVIEW: Forget its formal title, two former inspectors write of the real value of education

David Sherlock's annual reports as chief inspector of adult education were awaited with as much nervousness by civil servants in Whitehall as those nearer to the coalface.

His eloquent, reflective writing, combined with a willingness to aim criticism where he felt it was really deserved, meant the outpourings of the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) pulled few punches.

In his comments to the media and his columns in FE Focus, Sherlock was happier than most public servants to resist the suppression of mutual loathing in pursuit of government cash - and to take issue with his ultimate paymasters in government.

For this reason, there was an inevitability about the demise of the ALI, which in 2007 was subsumed into the nursery-to-grave giant which Ofsted has now become.

The inspectorate's demise was announced by Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, in 2005, the year after an ALI annual report that urged colleges to be more willing to say no to unwelcome initiatives.

Sherlock's latest work - with Nicky Perry, a former fellow director at the ALI - introduces us to the workings of what has become known as the "lifelong learning sector" through the eyes of a former insider with a talent for standing far enough back to see the big picture.

Sherlock and Perry, who have since set up Beyond Standards, a private performance-improvement service for training organisations, give the reader their perspective on quality improvement based on their experience as inspectors.

The result is a work that will appeal to anyone with an interest in post- 19 education and training as it should really be understood - in terms of its importance to the economy and society at large.

The title, Quality Improvement in Adult Vocational Education and Training: Transforming Skills for the Global Economy, is deceptively official- sounding.

Anyone glimpsing its contents could be forgiven for thinking that chapter titles such as Matching Learning to Learners or Defining the PDU Offering were the work of loyal bureaucrats.

But, thankfully, this is a book that cannot be judged by its cover. The content conveys an appreciation of the real value and importance of learning - which goes far beyond the narrowly defined skills agenda.

Perhaps reassuringly to many readers tired with performance indicators, it acknowledges that the best cannot so easily be measured, although it makes a compelling case for the need to try, at least.

The reader is invited to accept the notion of a "quality assessment framework" that is non-prescriptive enough to be applied in a variety of training and education settings, and brief enough to be conveniently digested - from time to time - by all practitioners, whether they are lecturers or those who manage and support them.

This is a book that can easily be appreciated by anyone, regardless of their livelihood, who has an interest in the education of adults. For educators, it will revive that sense of making a difference to the world - which brings so many into teaching in the first place.

Gill Moore is a Skills for Life lecturer

Quality Improvement in Adult Vocational Education and Training: Transforming Skills for the Global Economy By Nicky Perry and David Sherlock Kogan Page; 224pp; pound;40.00 ISBN 9780749451035 Published April 3, 2008.

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