Watching them, watching you

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Next time you feel nervous about an impending inspection visit, spare a thought for the inspectors. They might be feeling equally anxious.Ngaio Crequer goes behind the scenes at the Adult Learning Inspectorate.

Who feels the pressure when the inspectors call? Undoubtedly it is unnerving for those companies conducting training in the workplace when they come under close scrutiny. But for members of the Adult Learning Inspectorate too, the process is a gruelling one: four days of 8am starts, sometimes hundreds of miles to be covered visiting various sites, quite often 11pm finishes and always that looming deadline of the final report. And for the students - who are not being inspected, remember - there is that feeling of exposure, too.

When the inspectors agreed to lift the shroud of confidentiality that surrounds their work and let me see how they operate, Jai Jarvis, taking a national vocational qualification in customer service at Stoke Mandeville hospital, found herself explaining her work to four adults.

She was talking to her assessor, Richard Clark. But he is not yet qualified. So he was being supervised by Alex Mackenzie, a director of NVQUK.COM Ltd which had agreed to let FE Focus sit in while it was scrutinised. All three were being observed by Jonathan Allen, the inspector. And watching over them all was me, adult No 4. No wonder Jai was apprehensive.

As Mr Allen explained afterwards, talking to Jai on her own: "We are not inspecting you."

"Yes, I know," she replied. "But I still woke up at 3am I was so nervous."

NVQUK.COM Ltd, based in Bray-on-Thames, Berkshire, is only 15 months old. It provides training in the workplace in such subjects as business administration, health and social care, and hospitality. Its assessors visit trainees as far apart as Humberside and Dorset.

In one day, Gary Adkins, one of the five inspectors on this team, drove to Southampton, Oxford, Hitchin and High Wycombe. And at the end of that stint, he had to finish his report-writing. Inspectors at work are never too far from their laptops. Part-timers like him and three others in this team are paid pound;275 per day.

A company that receives any kind of government financial support to provide training cannot refuse to be inspected. Some have tried, said John Landeryou, the lead inspector. "If the local funding body says there are particular circumstances, we might delay. But we would never say no."

In this case, both Alex Mackenzie and his fellow director Allan Bate would have preferred that NVQUK.COM could have had longer to establish itself before being put under the microscope. At the time it had 112 trainees on its books, 65 foundation and 47 advanced modern apprentices.

"We stress that the idea of inspection is to help people improve," says Mr Landeryou. "If we do not take Allan and Alex with us, we have failed. Inspection is not a punishment, nor is it a reward. It is genuinely an attempt to make organisations better."

His colleague Gary Adkins feels the advice they pass on will be to a company's advantage. "In one sense it's a free consultancy service," he says.

The new inspectorate - it was set up under the Learning and Skills Act of last April - has taken over the role of the Training Standards Council. Companies are given three months' warning of an inspection. The team looks first at the company's self-assessment report and meets the managers in advance so that they know what to expect.

And out on the road with the inspectors, the atmosphere is friendly and constructive. After Stoke Mandeville, we head for Shelbourne private hospital, one year old and sparkling clean. Irene Katisha is taking an NVQ in customer service. A witness testimony is examined but it seems to have been signed by the candidate rather than the witness, her manager.

Alex Mackenzie observes Irene as she serves a meal. He asks her: Why do we use a disposable cloth? What should the fridge temperature be? And so on. He talks to her about key skills. Gary Adkins asks her if she has been properly supported and trained.

"Mr MacKenzie trains me very well," she replies. "He listens to me."

Has anyone ever talked to you about harassment or bullying, asks Mr Adkins. At this she seems bemused. There have never been any problems. But if there were, would she know who to go to? The inspector goes through her portfolio with her. Is there anything that could be done better? Things could progress a little bit faster, but no it was "Great".

Steve Willetts left school at 14 and now, at the age of 20, finds himself head chef at the hospital, promoted from within. With him, there were two points of concern: nobody had talked to him about key skills; and, as head chef, he had no one above him to talk to, from whom he could learn. He looked in books, asked friends.

When this was raised at feedback afterwards, Alex Mackenzie, who has a degree in food and trained at a catering college, explained that he would demonstrate how to portion and bone a chicken. "I did a brown stock for him. I do lots of butchering and filleting of fish." "I have been very impressed with everything I saw today," concludes Mr Adkins.

While most inspectors have been out in the field, a couple spend time at the company's headquarters, examining records, looking at documentary evidence. Every day they meet - distances permitting - for their own feedback sessions. They see if they are getting the same messages, the same feel about what is going on.

On the final evening they are pounding away on their keyboards. Each inspector has his or her own area. They talk about their reports, to make sure that they have understood everything, and nothing is missed.

Then into the company boardroom, and Allan Bate, the director, is invited in. He has already heard some of their comments. The inspectors relay bullet points of strengths and weaknesses. "We are anxious that you have been very slow with key skills but you are starting to address this. We have not seen anyone signed off," says Mr Landeryou.

"That's not true," exclaims Mr Bate. He says he finds it hard to believe. Quite a lot of people had done a lot of work on this, he says. It is agreed that Mr Bate and Mr Landeryou get together first thing the next day to see if anything can be clarified. There are problems, too, with the apprenticeship framework. Mr Bate accepts that is his fault. Next, procedures for the initial assessment of trainees, and another disagreement, though mainly of emphasis. Mr Bate says the company needs to put more work into it, and he's happy with that.

Mr Bate on induction: "I cannot say I have evidence of it being done but I do have evidence of saying that is what I want."

Equal opportunities? "There is no question of any discrimination, it is just about systems," say the inspectors and Mr Bate accepts that.

The inspectors leave to finish their reports, changing words and emphases. The next day they meet to decide their grades. In one area there is a suggestion that a grade three might be improved to a two, but ultimately the three emerge.

The atmosphere is friendly. Mr Bate will be visited again within 18 months, to look at the two grade four areas. And he knows he has to rewrite his business plan.

Afterwards, he reflects on the process. "It is a bit like the QE2 on its maiden voyage, and 15 minutes into the journey there is an assessment. There is no way you are going to get there, you are told. Well, that's what it feels like."

He described the process as "very helpful, objective and fair". He did, however, regret that the company's stage of development - it started in May 1999 - was not reflected in the grading. A point, the inspectors said, that would be made to the local learning and skills council when the results were presented to its members. That's the thing about inspections: there's always someone else you're answerable to.

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