Try this thought experiment. Suppose that we did away with all inspections, and not merely changed the OfstedAdult Learning Inspectorate remit or procedures, but put an end to them and left it at that. What would be the result?
The immediate reaction would be relief. Lecturers could now get on with teaching without watching their backs all the time. This would be the response from the whiteboard.
The second would be unease and anxiety about how the quality of further education would be judged. This would be the response from the superabundance of college managers who would see a rationale for their existence disappear.
What is likely to be a more common response is disbelief and incredulity that such a ridiculous and irresponsible idea could be put forward even as a thought experiment. What about the accountability of FE to its "stakeholders"?
I want to start with a personal response to this thought experiment. I have never wanted to be an OfstedALI or any other sort of inspector, although I have been an external examiner for many courses. The difference is this.
When I do external examining I follow the general principle of trying to see how the knowledge and understanding of students on a course can be developed. That's it. Any rules, regulations or procedures that stand in the way of the development of knowledge and understanding are for the bin as far as I'm concerned. I act as an autonomous professional. If I were an inspector, I would lose that autonomy. I can't think of any other way of expressing my opposition to being an inspector than to use an old-fashioned phrase, and say that the problem is that inspectors are "agents of the state".
In all our thinking about FE, we tend to forget about the state, especially when it operates through regulation rather than direct control. Politicians and ministers of education are fond of saying things like "Ofsted, an independent body, has shown..." It would be disingenuous rather than cynical to say that "no one believes them". Managers and lecturers from colleges that get good grades might be sympathetic to the idea that OfstedALI is independent. A report out this week from the think tank Civitas rejects the spurious independence of Ofsted and proposes what might seem the better alternative of an inspectorate entirely free from government interference.
Although it is an appealing idea, it is hard to imagine what a truly independent inspectorate would look like. It would have to be accountable to some ragbag of "stakeholders" such as funding and lead bodies, quangos, businesses, "the community", lecturers, students, and even their parents! "Stakeholders" is in fact a bogus concept. It is used to undermine lecturers' authority by reducing their views to just one of many "voices"
of the "sector". So Civitas is half right and Ofsted must go, but this will not be enough to save us from the tyranny of inspection.
The problem is not that FE is externally inspected, with all the time-wasting preparation this involves, or that internal planning in FE at all levels is now entirely based around the question "What will OfstedALI's attitude be to this?"
The problem is that we have all internalised the inspection mentality. We support inspection in the form of appraisal, peer observation and teacher training. We support listening to the student voice and the right of students to undertake increasingly complex evaluations of college facilities, programmes and teachers. Inspecting one another, checking people off on lists or matching them to "criteria" is the norm.
From initial job interviews to "exit" interviews, we monitor, check and assess. In other words, we constantly inspect one another, even in informal settings. It is hardly possible to have a conversation in the corridor without fearing that someone is checking on what is said against a list of acceptable words and ideas?
The culture of inspection in FE is more frightening than George Orwell's 1984, because it is not the state that is monitoring, questioning and inspecting us, but the nicest people, our colleagues and friends, that are keeping us in line.
A teacher at a sixth-form college told me that her six-year-old had come home from school with a checklist about her teacher. The questions were of the form "My teacher is very fairquite fairnot at all fair (please tick)". Her daughter just thought her teacher was nice and didn't know what to do. She will learn. By the time she is in a sixth-form or college, she will be as good at evaluation as an OfstedALI inspector.
Remembering that some schools have given children stickers to put on cards each time their parents smoke, I wondered if her daughter had a secret questionnaire to complete with questions like: "Your parents' attitude to being asked to help you fill in this questionnaire was..." In the future, it will not be OfstedALI or our colleagues we need to fear as "agents of the state" but our students who, once upon a time, were charming six-year-olds with ticklists and a crayon.
Dennis Hayes is based at the Urban Learning Foundation