Satisfaction without guilt

16th July 2004 at 01:00
"Why do you do it?" The question makes me feel a bit like a convent girl streetwalking at King's Cross. It has that faint tang of distaste about it which puts me on the defensive from the start.

A month or so ago, Graham Jones, principal, fellow TES columnist and old friend from our time together at the Further Education Funding Council, confessed with a squirm of shame that he too had once inspected.

A chum of 30 years' standing berated me when the Adult Learning Inspectorate began inspecting adult and community learning for introducing essay-writing into her hitherto undemanding literature circle. It smarts because it's personal. "Not me, guv. I'm just waiting for a friend," I feel like saying, before being carted off to Bow Street. Still, a year after I started out on these columns, I think I owe you an explanation.

Like most good things in life it was an accident. I had spent five great years as a college vice-principal in Dublin and 11 or 12 years as a principal in England. I had joined the Royal College of Art as development director for two years because Sir Jocelyn Stevens (Piranha Teeth to his friends) asked me to - in a letter I keep and treasure.

It was a scribble on one of those small pieces of expensive notepaper used only by the extremely posh and wealthy. Jocelyn dashed off all the exciting things we could do together, an offer to choose any title and salary I thought fit and, at the end, a smiley face with "And besides, we'll have fun". Irresistible, eh? One in the eye for HR departments everywhere and part of the reason the college under Stevens was, without doubt, the best design school in the world.

And we did have fun, until Jocelyn went off to English Heritage to start the long haul to hide the A303 in a tunnel under Stonehenge. Nothing to keep me. I was shortlisted for a senior university job but didn't fancy it much. And along came Terry Melia and Bill Stubbs, whom I knew from being (that most seminal of experiences) a principal in the Inner London Education Authority.

I won't pretend that anything with Bill's name on it could ever be as wackily informal as the Stevens approach to recruitment. Suffice it to say that the deal was finally clinched in a hotel in Banbury to which I had been lured by Melia on the entirely false presumption that I had already accepted the job.

And I loved it. I had already spent a good slice of a professional lifetime in design and in college management. I knew what I was talking about, and people I inspected were usually disposed to accept that. Small-team leadership was a walk in the park compared with running colleges. Puzzling out what was behind the cartloads of fact collected in an inspection alongside a group of smart, committed peers was an intellectual and social delight.

I could write a bit, and the challenge of finding the right way of saying something critical, the words that would form clear pictures in someone else's head and give them the confidence to fix the problem - I found those things enormously satisfying. I still do.

Four years among our 70-odd colleges in the South-east and in art, design, media and the performing arts across the country were wonderful. Sublime grade 1s at Newcastle upon Tyne and Eastbourne. Compassionate grade 4s at Stoke-on-Trent ("Nice buildings, pity there are no students.") I loved all of it. And I loved it because it moved people forward - and because, regal or rackety, it was intensely human, intensely personal.

This is becoming self-indulgent. Let's just say that setting up the Training Standards Council and the ALI were no less fun than helping Melia to do so at the FEFC in 1993. I found private-sector employers and training providers - people outside the so-called "education world" - no less altruistic, no less welcoming, no less determined to do better.

Getting back to running a pound;30 million business, employing 250 staff and 650 associates - and trying to do it superbly - is as much a refreshing change as was gearing down to an FEFC regional team a decade ago. And taking on big, literally life-and-death challenges, such as working with the armed forces to make initial training consistently excellent after the tragedies of Deepcut is the greatest possible privilege.

So, sweetheart, I know your wife doesn't understand you. I know you only drive that slowly because you're lost. But maybe it's you who's got a problem, not me. I'm happy with what I do, and if you'll let me, I could make you happy, too.

David Sherlock is chief inspector for adult learning

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