Winners leap off the cliff

27th February 2004 at 00:00
The most fun in business is to pull off things which everyone else thinks are impossible. I find it helps if you don't know what everyone else thinks. A bit like in the best Mickey Mouse movies, you run so fast that you don't notice when you've gone off the cliff-edge. Provided you don't look down and keep running, on you go until you succeed.

Setting up the Training Standards Council was like that. We would never have done it if we had known that the Training Standards Advisory Service had been tried before and failed. I thought all those civil servants who kept staring at me narrowly before coughing up just too little money to do the job, were being careful. Not a bit of it. They were sure we were going to muff it. They knew they were the chosen fall guys. They were just minimising the scale of losses they were going to have to explain to the Public Accounts Committee. Smarter folk than me, for sure.

However, succeed we did. Although the work of the council passed on to the Adult Learning Inspectorate three years ago, the company liquidation was completed just recently. Job well done and all the working capital returned to the Treasury, plus a decent surplus. The completeness of that, its symmetry, gives me a real buzz.

If you knew nothing about English public life, you wouldn't think inspection was a Mickey Mouse cliff-edge kind of job. Some very decent souls from the Danish Evaluation Institute came to visit in Coventry. "We do 20 inspections a year and each one takes 18 months," they said. Why can't I be content with a job like that? None of this scary stuff, trying to make sure that 800 inspectors and associates never put a foot wrong in 30,000 days spent with anxious providers every year. Instead, just wait for something to go terribly pear-shaped in Jutland or for a politician to become curious about something (but not so curious he can't wait for 18 months for an answer), and sidle into action. Wonderful for a serene life and a lengthy retirement studying something equally slow-moving: say, caterpillars. But no adrenalin rush and no chance of a fleeting moment as a butterfly.

I think I probably suffer from a three-year itch. 1997, Training Standards Council. 2000, build up Adult Learning Inspectorate and start winding up Training Standards Council. 2003, launch Excalibur, the ALI Learning Network. The itching powder, I'm ashamed to admit, owes something to cussedness and a sheer sense of mischief. But I've always felt uneasy about the distance some say should be marked out between inspection and really making things better. "Inspectors tell it like it is and walk away. Never give advice. If you do, you'll be blamed when the provider just keeps on being a basket case."

Cobblers! What sort of buttoned - down, purse-lipped, tight-arsed, non-Mickey Mouse over-cliff-edge, sensible, based-on-bitter experience creed is that?

Much better, surely, to heed the siren song from business: "If you keep trying the same remedy, you'll get the same disappointing result."

Excalibur is high risk. If, as an inspectorate, you want the sword to stay firmly stuck in the stone, you just keep on minutely evaluating learning, writing well-crafted but never-read reports about it and preening yourself as an exemplary public servant. If you believe what the politicians tell us, that the world doesn't owe us any living at all, let alone a very decent one; that we are just about clambering out of the mire after 20 years' hard labour; and that we'd better get used to flat-out striving as a permanent way of life, you'd better get a grip on that hilt and start heaving.

Excalibur is about sharing what inspectors know and letting everyone see what inspectors see. It's part of the ALI website (ali.gov.uk). It's that God-awful phrase "blended learning". It offers an improvement service for every provider, delivered online, through high-quality publications and face-to-face sessions with inspectors.

It's a toolkit which helps you put your best foot forward for inspection, and a good practice database with real pictures and real telephone numbers of other providers who do things beautifully and are prepared to lend you a hand. It will be better training for provider nominees, so that you unsung heroes can become formally qualified and take centre stage as the Quality Champions of the sector. If ALI can provide the kick-start and the continuous flow of stimulating "this is the way they do it" information, from all over England and from our clients overseas, I'm counting on you to build the kind of ambitious network we have called the National Quality Community.

Like I said, it's high risk. The delightful Danes wrote "We were quite impressed" (high praise in Danish) after their day in Coventry. Not good enough, my friends. If we want to be winners, one and all, we have to master the Mickey Mouse cliff-edge sprint. Don't look down and "Wheeee"!

David Sherlock is chief inspector of adult learning

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