Quality fetishists are streets ahead

28th October 1994 at 00:00
There is exciting news for those interested in the great kwality in education fetish. Brace yourselves, kwality fans everywhere. The British standards award for kwality, BS 5750, has now been renamed BS EN ISO 9001. There, I thought that would shock you.

Not many people know that. I didn't know it, and what is more I was blissfully happy in my ignorance. Personally I do not care whether it is renamed KRAPP 2 or DIAL 999. Somehow the sheer meaninglessness of BS EN ISO 9001 says it all. Roll it round the tongue. Savour its utter pointlessness.

Kwality will never be the same again, thanks to good old BS EN ISO 9001. I wonder what you have to do to get BS EN ISO 9002. If you are ever in Florence, take a close look at Michelangelo's David. He has now got BS EN ISO 9001 stamped on his leg, and he is all the better for it.

It is very difficult to challenge the particular view of quality in education, with its emphasis on structures, that has recently become predominant. If you do, then you run the risk of being accused of favouring the slipshod and the substandard. Your friends start to look uncomfortable, as if proximity to a heretic might deny them a place in heaven. Conformists that most of us are, we tend to ride with it. "We've set up a quality assurance committee," someone said to me recently. "We had to. You can't really afford not to have one, can you?" As a result, form takes precedence over content. I know of institutions that are bristling with quality assurance structures, that win medals and badges for them, but whose actual work is shoddy. There is almost an inverse relationship between the stridency with which institutions scream about kwality, and the real quality of what goes on there. The top outfits are usually relaxed about it, and the naff ones keep telling you how much of it they have got.

If you are in the first year of your inheritance you can go to any number of expensive conferences on the subject. Lectures are given by managers, directors, deans and controllers of quality. There is a professor of constructive capitalism in a university in Texas, so no doubt there is a professor of kwality as well somewhere (don't write in, stay well hidden).

It makes you wonder whether this whole kwality push is in part driven by the miserable shortage of proper resources. Schools have been spending little money on books lately and premises are shabby. Some Pounds 4 billion is needed to bring school buildings up to scratch. As book and equipment stores diminish, teacher redundancies abound, class sizes go up and the fabric of education deteriorates. It is almost as if government pressure to acquire and display the badges and trappings of quality has become a substitute for these essentials, a desperate attempt to reassure the public that all is well.

In September, when the Prime Minister went to South Africa, the following report appeared in The Times: "John Major delighted pupils and teachers at the school when he unveiled a fully equipped library filled with literature provided by the British Government." No one would begrudge the gesture. South Africa is emerging from turmoil and children need all the help they can get. But it would be nice if he unveiled a few fully equipped government-provided school libraries here as well, in places other than city technology colleges and schools that have opted out.

It is not clear what the South Africans were given. Does The Times report of the "library filled with literature provided by the British Government" mean that they supplied the library or the literature? If they provided the literature, then this could explain what happened to all the surplus copies of that ludicrous Government anthology of great literature for key stage 3, the one that contained three lines of Chaucer and half a poem by Shelley 'n Keats. Perhaps it was spare copies of the Parent's Charter, or worse, that extremely thin volume The Educational Thoughts of Kenneth Clarke. If so, should we not be exporting this stuff to our enemies, rather than our friends? And will it do anything other than cure insomniacs?

Anyway, to get back to the quality issue, it is high time we had a proper award for real quality in education, for the things that really matter in school. See how many of these searching questions you can answer in the affirmative: 1 During break, is coffee stirred with a pencil or a Biro, rather than a spoon?

2 Does the caretaker really run the school?

3 Does the deputy head play old Beatles songs in assembly, frantically trying to pretend there's a coherent message in the lyrics?

4 Is the staff car park full of N-registered Ford Escorts?

5 Has someone written graffiti in staff toilets saying things like "Raise the national IQ, kill an Ofsted lay inspector", or "Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean the buggers aren't really out to get you"?

6 Can at least half the staff play bridge and mark books at the same time?

7 Is the head planning to retire early, buy a boat, and call it Lump Sum?

8 Has some joker piled a stack of national curriculum documents from floor to ceiling?

9 Does the school blow its total INSET budget on a weekend in a seaside hotel?

10 Is the staffroom copy of the school's development plan used as a teapot stand?

If you can truthfully answer "Yes" to all 10 quality questions, then congratulations. Your school has real style. You have now qualified to have BS EN ISO 9001 stamped on your bum.

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