Mutiny under scrutiny

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Off-sod: what college lecturer Harry Marsden would like to say after working under the glare of inspectors

The nurse measured my blood pressure for the third time in seven minutes.

"190 over 87. Still too high. Do you have any other symptoms?"

I told her about the pains across my chest.

"All the time?"

"Only when I'm at college."

I told her about the lack of sleep.

"How long has that been going on?"

"Since the beginning of term."



"PISS! You're a teacher, aren't you?"

I nodded.

"Have you just had an inspection at college?"

I nodded again.

"PISS. Post-inspection sadness syndrome. We get it all the time.

Schoolteachers with sudden crippling neuralgia. College lecturers with nervous tics."

I teach in a further education college in the North of England and the course I run has recently been scrutinised by one of several inspection agencies in vogue.

When I first started teaching 27 years ago this job was done by Her Majesty's Inspectorate, clumsy boffins from the DES who observed lessons and chatted amicably to staff and students. Not anymore. This is now the work of thrusting young executives from QAA, TSC and an agency I prefer to call "Off-Sod".

Preparations for the inspection reached my level in September. I have no idea how long my superiors had been working on it. Not long, if their taut expressions were anything to go by.

Just before half-term management doubled its emails, after-hours meetings tripled, and we were introduced to the person charged with leading us into battle. It was a female colleague in her 30s whose meteoric rise up the greasy pole, thanks to clever patronage by a vice-principal, led to her being dubbed "the Creature".

"The inspection team will want to see three highs, three lows and three middles from every assignment you've set - for every unit on the course," she said.

I did a quick calculation: three main assignments per year, 16 units per course, and four courses, that's more than 1,700 pieces of work.

"Who chooses which lessons they'll see?" someone asked.

"They won't be observing any teaching. They're concerned with college systems."

"When are they coming?" someone else asked.

"November 16 to December 18."

"They're here for a month?" The Creature emitted a knowing smile. "They're here for just three days: next Wednesday, a fortnight later and - to give us the results - on the 18th."

I spent the ensuing weeks studying my ARSE (annual review and self-evaluation), a document I'd cobbled together at half-term from a similar report prepared by clever colleagues from another department. I also spent a lot of time forging internal verification (IV) documents.

When I started teaching, the assessment process was simple:

1 I set the class an essay. 2 They did it and handed it in. 3 I marked it and gave it back to them.

Now with IV I have to:

1 Show my assignment brief to a colleague and get it approved. 2 Hand it out to the class. 3 They do it and hand it in. 4 I mark it. 5 I show a sample of the assignments to the Internal Verifier, who checks it. 6 I return the assignment to the student.

Instead of three stages, we now have six! In reality, few colleagues take IV seriously. Most wait until the external verifier is imminent and doctor a few well-chosen pieces of student work to suggest that all six stages of the procedure have been observed.

Don't get me wrong. I don't falsify IV documentation because I'm lazy or dishonest. I don't have the time to implement the system with rigour. There is far more work to do than I can cope with; so I prioritise. Given the choice between lessons to teach and IV documents to process, I opt to teach.

We were soon introduced to the four members of the inspection team. Their boss was Tarquin, a small man with a grey beard and matching demeanour.

Then Job and Simon who were both tall, slim, sallow- complexioned, bespectacled and dressed in black suits. The fourth was Clarissa, a gaunt female in her early 40s wearing blouse, skirt and a starched expression.

I remained silent in the first meeting until just before the end, when I reminded Tarquin that the performing arts department had organised a special lunchtime show for them.

"We won't have time to attend," he said.

"It's just 20 minutes?"


Ironically, I was greeted just after the show by Job asking how we assessed live performances.

"Why didn't you come to the show?" I asked .

"We prefer recorded evidence. Do you have any CDs or videos?' The five o'clock debriefing meeting consisted of the Creature reading from Tarquin's rough notes. He had complimentary things to say about most of what he'd seen and was positively gushing about the assignment briefs and annual report and self-evaluation document submitted by a lecturer from humanities called Derek Foy. How damning, I thought, if poor Derek is remembered only for this. I penned a quick epitaph: Here lies the body of Derek Foy, He wasn't much good at the job, poor boy, But he was tall and handsome and oft inspired.

His Briefs and his ARSE were much admired.

I looked up. She was staring at me. "There are a few issues to be addressed with your course," she said tartly before rattling off a list of things not done and inconsistencies in my documentation.

The second visit of the inspection team a fortnight later proceeded along similar lines: a morning meeting with Tarquin amp; co, another flat refusal to attend a lunchtime show, little evidence that they'd looked at student work and an uncomfortable debriefing with the Creature.

"They noticed there were four units missing." Only four? The bundle of stuff that never arrived from the performance technology department had obviously not registered. "And they didn't like the video you sent. It lacked documentation." I await the results of the inspection with indifference. At least my blood pressure's down and I'm sleeping better.

Harry Marsden is not the author's real name

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