David Henderson reports on a new study delivering a damning verdict on the quality inspection regime in Scotland's colleges
Millions of pounds spent checking that teaching and learning is up to standard in colleges is largely wasted, according to a withering verdict on the "quality regimes" in further education.
Academic standards and the skills of lecturers and managers have not visibly improved under the "death by audit" regimes now common across all colleges, concludes a study of lecturers, middle managers and senior managers in three unnamed colleges, carried out by Neil Etherington, a PhD student at Strathclyde University.
The general perception is that tough and excessive accountability has made little inroads into teaching and learning, although up to a quarter of college budgets can be spent on checks.
College staff slate the bureaucratic interference of the now renamed Scottish Funding Council and what they believe is the political scrutiny of the inspectorate since incorporation.
Mr Etherington, who interviewed staff between June 2003 and June 2004, reveals there is more awareness about quality and the systems associated with its agenda but maintains that "this prominence is perceived by many respondents to undermine the very standards that the quality rhetoric purports to nurture".
Lecturers refer constantly to records, checklists, targets, evidence, standards, paper filling and performance indicators that increase bureaucracy and drain teaching time. They now have fewer hours to teach and some staff say they have had to cancel lectures to attend "quality"
Lecturers in one college were also threatened with disciplinary action by a manager after refusing to comply with changes in lessons during an HMIE inspection.
Staff accept the quality agenda as a feature of college life, but say it does not focus on the issues that matter to them, such as the type of accommodation, the size of classes and the lack of time to develop or consolidate new courses. Lecturers also resent managers' efforts to win them over to the idea of cultural change using designated quality weeks or days. One lecturer said: "It's the softly-softly, 'we're all a team'
approach that causes most resentment".
They dislike classroom observation, which they see as unnecessary policing and backdoor appraisal.
Meanwhile, middle managers in the three colleges complain they are "swamped" by their teaching responsibilities and extensive quality checks through self-evaluation, course reporting, internal moderation and course development.
College bosses are equally angry with the quality agenda they know they are powerless to opt out of. One told Mr Etherington: "My perception of the external audit is hoops that the college has to jump through to continue to get the funding to let me do the bits that are my real job."
Some accuse the funding council of unacceptable micro-management, of being "divorced from reality" and operating a parentchild relationship in terms of control. Senior managers say the council's information requests are "tedious and irritating", while "feedback isn't helpful". Another said:
"They don't communicate with each other" and another added: "You are only told when they are not happy with you."
A majority of bosses felt they could make little impression on the funding council. One said: "You can talk to them but it's like talking to a wall there. They don't change tack very quickly and if they do, it's only marginally. I don't think it (the level of audit) will go down - they ask for more and more reports, but it's difficult to see what benefit they get from the reports."
Some managers also regard the inspectorate as merely a "puppet of the funding council" and "not objective". One said: "I think they are government agents basically and I don't believe they are independent. I certainly don't believe that they are educationally driven. I think they are politically driven."
Time spent preparing for an inspection is described as displacement activity and a means of external control. One manager said: "They are God and there is no such thing as professionalism among the staff. They can go into anything, they can ask anything. Certainly when they are speaking to you they are always looking for the negative, and that is bad. I hate them coming in."
College managers further resent the plethora of monitoring regimes in their sector. As one put it: "It's now seen as being almost imperative that an organisation has some national quality award or affiliation and so all these things together have concentrated the mind wonderfully on quality."
Another regretted ticking boxes for external agencies without necessarily any improvements for students. Many managers, says Mr Etherington, feel that the investment in quality - "25 per cent of your organisation at least", as one put it - is not cost-effective and does not lead to improved academic standards.
Quality Regimes in Scottish Further Education is by Neil Etherington, of the human resources management department at Strathclyde University