We're all prisoners in a 247 surveillance culture

28th March 2008 at 00:00

Have you noticed how many colleges have taken to bragging about their Ofsted ratings? You can understand it when they have a string of grade ones and want the world to know about it - though even then it's tantamount to corporate bling: if you've got it, flaunt it. But now they're all at it. Every second college that's had an inspector through its doors recently is looking for a suitable snippet to smear across its publicity bumf and website.

It's a bit like the way theatre reviews are (mis)used to publicise mediocre productions. What the reviewer writes is, "It's amazing that anyone could put on such tosh", but what appears outside the theatre is simply, "Amazing".

So it's easy enough to read between the lines of colleges' PR. If what appears on the ads is, "Designated an improving college by Ofsted", you just know that the full quote ran, "Improving slowly from a very low base." And if the inspection report says, "There's nothing good to be said about this college except for the pies in the canteen", you can guess which portion will end up on the website menu.

Sadly, though, it's not only in their publicity that colleges have become obsessed with Ofsted. All aspects of college life are dominated by inspection and the anxieties that surround it. We are in danger of becoming not so much colleges that occasionally get inspected, as inspection vehicles that occasionally do a bit of teaching and learning.

The irony is that it wasn't meant to be like this. A couple of years ago, I went to Ofsted's London headquarters to meet those who run the college side of the business. To my surprise, they were all reasonable people, with only one head each, and there were no instruments of torture in sight.

At the time, the new inspection regime was just about to be brought in: light-touch inspections for some, and the notice period to be slashed from months to weeks. One reason they were doing it, I was told, was to make the process less disruptive. In particular, they wanted to trim back the "inspection preparation industry", which they acknowledged was eating up time and money that could be better used.

Sad to say, all the indications are that the opposite has happened. It's only natural really. If you are expecting an attack on a particular day, you set your guards to cover it, then stand them down afterwards. If, however, an attack might come at any time, you're into round-the-clock protection. All right, you can relax slightly in the immediate post- inspection period - provided, that is, you haven't been judged to have got things so wrong that you're plunged into the horrors of special measures. Other than that, it's full-on, high-profile, in-your-face loin girding.

External consultants are still crawling all over the place to keep us permanently on our toes. Tap "FE" and "consultants" into Google and you get 100,000 hits in the UK alone. Change the search terms to "further education" and "consultants" and it's four times that number.

We have also become adept at inflicting this mentality on ourselves. One internal inspection follows another. Lesson observation schemes abound. Documents are checked and double-checked. Whispers go round: such-and-such college has been "done"; it must be our turn next. Better ratchet up the preparation one more notch.

Of course, it could be argued that all this is bringing great benefits. With so much attention being paid to the quality of what's on offer, surely that quality must be constantly improving?

There is, however, another way of looking at it - one that tends to recommend itself to those in the eye of the storm. For teachers, preparing for even the lightest of light-touch internal inspections is extraordinarily time-consuming. Lesson observations require large amounts of extra preparation time, very little of which has much impact on performance in the class.

There is also the psychological side to consider. In an already high- pressure occupation, even more pressure is something you could do without. Constant surveillance is what you get in high-security prisons. And how do the inmates react to that? By sticking needles in their arms or hanging themselves from the ceilings of their cells. You have been warned.

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