When Chris Woodhead stepped down as chief inspector of schools, there was a welcome retreat from polemic in the statements emerging from the Office for Standards in Education. Until the past week, that is. Suddenly a press release questions the progress in literacy, numeracy and language education for adults, highlighting the risk that thousands of learners may fail due to poor teaching.
This issue is nothing new. Consistently, the Further Education Funding Council inspectorate found that literacy and numeracy had a higher concentration of poor teaching than other areas of FE provision. But now is not the time to undermine confidence in the national strategy. In the past two years national standards have been identified for literacy, numeracy and language teaching to adults, and major national training programmes have been developed. Tutors working above a threshold of hours have been through training, but that does not mean that all people teaching literacy and numeracy in the sector have been trained. And the period covered by the Ofsted thematic review straddled much of the time when tutors were undergoing training. So the effect of the programme on quality might be expected to come later. Classes taught by trained tutors apparently met quality thresholds. So where is the problem?
The challenge seems to lie in the success of the Skills for Life strategy in encouraging new forms of provision - where quality systems can lag behind the enthusiasm to get started. No one wants to justify poor teaching - especially for adults who have been failed by the education system once already. I think it is excellent that Ofsted is monitoring quality. I hope the Government takes two key messages from the report. First, that we must redouble investment in staff development, since the journey to universally available high quality basic education is a long one. Second, that developmental work in new contexts, and where literacy, numeracy and language support are embedded in other studies needs significant learning and learner support.
My difficulty with the report lies partly in the rush to public judgment characteristic of an audit culture. I can't help feeling that a public report would have been more welcome in a year or two, when the provision has bedded down, when training has had an impact on tutor confidence and quality, and when certain curriculum development initiatives come to fruition. Meanwhile, inspectors might help practitioners overcome weakness by giving priority to disseminating the good practice they find. Arriving now, it risks generating a knee-jerk rush to narrow the contexts in which adults can expect support with reading, maths and language, or at the very least an argument - again about standards.
There is an old frustration at work here. The Learning and Skills Act created one funding regime spanning sixth-forms to community based learning and the workplace. It then gave us two inspectorates. I thought it was wrong then - and for all the excellence of colleagues in the Adult Learning Inspectorate and Ofsted, I think the benefit to adult learners is less than the sum of their endeavours. Neither seems to be as sensitive to context as you could expect from HMI before the 1992 legislation. Hasn't the time come now for the two inspection regimes to be reunited? It works well in Wales, where Estyn is in a position to comment on all school and post-school provision. Why not in England, too?
I remember with gratitude the advice and support for development which HMIs offered my colleagues and me on their visits, and I recall how quickly that led into practice in classrooms. HMIs' time was spent 80 per cent on development visits and supportive monitoring, and 20 per cent on inspection. Inspectorate summer schools were a key site of professional development, and inspectors were respected as leaders in the field.
Shifting the regime to spend more time on inspections and formal reporting helps funders to identify weakness. It provides good headlines and heated debate. But does it give enough support to raise standards and to nurture excellent practice?
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education