Wake up and smell the horse's head

31st March 2000 at 01:00
HOW IS it that the old song goes? "The animals went in two by two, hurrah, hurrah." But is that really a nice way to talk about college inspectors? Is it respectful?

But that, we are told, is how it is going to be: the future according to Chris Woodhead. One inspector calling will not be enough any more. From April next year, expect to find them only in matching pairs or boxed sets; buy one inspector and get the second one thrown in for free.

For those of you who are still a bit hazy about the mechanics of the thing, let me explain. Once the Further Education Funding Council has been gathered in to sit at the right hand of the great funding councillor in the sky, its inspection function will be deemed too big a job for any one organisation. So Mr Woodhead's OFSTED will be inspecting the 16 to 19-year-olds, while a new Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) will cover the 19-pluses.

Precisely why this is happening doesn't take a genius to work out. Something as daft as this just has to be a compromise. The Blair Government likes OFSTED. They think they are doing a great job in sorting out schools (though for schools you must always remember to read sorting out teachers, too.)

But if they give OFSTED the whole job then they are going to run into the objection, what do they know about adults? And even though the cynics might ask why that should stop them, the politic thing to do is obviously to split the two tasks. Never mind that many colleges have classes where teenagers and adults sit side by side: duopoly is the word (not to be confused with Monopoly; in FE you can never collect pound;200 when you pass go . . . ).

And then, of course, there's the issue of fairness. Why should the schoolteachers have all the fun? If OFSTED can sort out teachers, surely they can do the same for that poor battered battalion that is the college lecturing workforce, too. Why should they miss out on the broken morale, the staffrooms reduced to tears, the stress levels pushed into the stratosphere?

If you think I am exaggerating, just ask teachers how many of them feel their OFSTED inspection was a positive experience. But, you say, it will be different in colleges. Isn't Mr Woodead already making soothing noises? Yes he is, but doesn't that inevitably call to mind the old saying about talking softly while carrying a big stick?

In a recent interview, OFSTED's high-profile boss assures us that he is not so silly as to want to impose two separate inspections on colleges. But then he also makes it clear - and this should surprise no one - that where joint inspections are carried out,OFSTED will be the senior partner.

Remarkably, he goes on to claim that having two inspectors rather than one will somehow "cut a swath through bureaucracy."; that creating two systems in place of the existing one will actually reduce the paraphernalia that surrounds an inspection.

Now I am a poor man (I teach in FE!) but I'm willing to put up pound;50 of my modest stipend to say that in reality the exact opposite will happen. And that like every other "advance" in colleges in recent years, this new "two for one" process will end up causing us more work of the "pointless crap" variety, rather than less.

Our protests, we know, will have little effect. Parliament has tried to point out the pitfalls and failed. And let's face it, this Government is not exactly known for its listening qualities. So, cometh the spring (next spring, mercifully, not this one), cometh the inspectors.

Like policemen on rough estates will they now patrol our corridors in pairs? Work as a double act - one straight, one funny? One nice cop, one nasty? Will they inspect each other: "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours?" Their reports, I'm thinking about.

With OFSTED pulling the strings, perhaps a fitting analogy would be of puppet and puppeteer. But the metaphor that really fits is surely that of the pantomime horse. That big, inane, hapless beast with no co-ordination and an endless capacity for making us laugh. As in the best of pantos, you can be sure there will be times when the two ends will want to pull in different directions. Obviously OFSTED is going to be the brains of the operation. That means they will get to be the horse's head.

So what precisely does that leave for the new ALI?

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a north

London FE college

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