Why I feel like King Canute

27th May 2005 at 01:00
The bones of King Canute are in a wooden box in Winchester Cathedral.

Fortunately they are high up, on top of a wall. The cathedral is built on a quivering bog, supported only by oak logs, and every winter the crypt fills with water. The irony is too delicious to ignore, for it was Canute, you will remember, who tried to outface the tide in the Solent nearby.

The Solent tides are a curiosity. Because the Isle of Wight is roughly half way up the Channel, the sea sluices in and out of the western and eastern ends of the Solent "like water being tipped back and forth on a tea tray", as the nautical almanacs quaintly put it. The result is that, at each high and low tide, there is a "stand": the ebb and flood begin, then seem to pause for an hour or so to think about it, before departing or arriving in a rush.

It is this that allows a least three interpretations of the Canute story.

In the first, known to every child, the headstrong and arrogant Danish usurper tries to show off his power to fawning but rebellious courtiers by thumping down his throne at the water's edge and defying the tide to rise and make his tootsies wet. It does, of course, and he has to beat a shamefaced retreat, a satisfying example of vanity for every English child for the past millennium.

In the second, Cnut the Crafty, son of generations of Viking seawolves, knows all about the Solent stand. The tide advances. He commands it to go back. It does so in apparent obedience and he stalks away triumphant, no doubt giving the sea his permission to resume normal service as soon as he reaches the safety of the high-tide mark. The courtiers, landlubbers and simpletons to a man, are astonished and stop plotting forthwith.

The third is the post-modern theory and predictably the dullest. This time Canute knows that the Solent stand will save him from drowning but uses the inexorably rising tide as a parable to illustrate the limits of even kingly power. Presumably the courtiers slunk away with furrowed brow, convinced that they could do no better than Canute.

I felt a bit like the old chancer before the general election when another review was announced which could package up the Adult Learning Inspectorate with the Office for Standards in Education and the social care inspectors.

I reckoned I'd done my bit to rule my ALI fiefdom properly.

Three-and-a-half thousand inspections done in four years, beginning a week after Wessex and Mercia had joined up, despite the fact that some of the Mercians started out as reluctant recruits to the Danelaw. More than four million gold pieces returned to the Treasury in the past two years.

Last year, we delivered the same number of inspections for less money than the year before, not least because we earned six times as much from earldoms and principalities other than those of Princess Ruth than in the year before. A host of glittering prizes screwed to the walls of our Coventry Castle shows what good boys are we.

Even among those who we were supposed to be oppressing, more than four in every five said we did it well. What more do you want?

Manly defiance followed at least by a good soaking and possibly total immersion sounded like a bad idea. I've sailed Solent waters for many a year, and found them chill any time but high summer.

Equally unpromising seemed either of the tricksy solutions, based on local knowledge. Once the questioning onlookers get to know they are going to be deprived of a good drowning by a freak of nature, their thoughts are likely to turn to less gradual forms of termination.

No, this looked like a case for lateral thinking: build a boat.

Nobody likes regulation but, hey, ALI is not a regulator. We don't issue licences to practice like Ofcom or Ofwat and we don't go round with a clipboard, ticking the boxes demanded by some complex and arcane rulebook.

The common inspection framework is a cleverly conceived, short, agenda which allows us to get down to discussing the same issues in the same language as providers without delay or misunderstanding; nothing more.

So what form should the good ship ALI take, to successfully navigate the rushing tide of change? Not too big, because big ships are hard to steer and slow to respond. How about something small and swift - a China clipper among barges - bringing its customers what they want, when they want it, at a price they are willing to pay?

An argosy which uses quality assessment - independently evaluating the service to learners - to draw up clear recommendations and then offering a menu of help to carry them through?

It can be done, you know. If Canute had sat on his throne until the sea flooded round it, then stepped coolly into a waiting boat, waving to those left behind as he scudded away, it would have spoiled the tale. But he would really have given the courtiers something to admire.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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