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Troops sent over the top as inspectors advance

The phoney war had been going on for some time. Management would say things like: "I reckon we are due for an inspection this year. But let's not panic. When that letter arrives there won't be any knee-jerk reactions from us. Oh no, it will be business as usual."

The college paid for a freelance trouble-shooting inspector to come in for a week. A kind of mini-invasion to sharpen us up for the real thing. In full combat gear of grey suit, grey tie and small grey moustache, he parachuted into various trouble spots and then debriefed us. Things were not good.

You are in a zero learning situation, he declared in front of a white- board covered in arrows showing us exactly where we were going wrong. The pulse quickened.

Then the letter arrived. All hope of the conflict being over by Christmas was quashed: a January inspection loomed.

Managers immediately move. "Let's go for it!" they cry, and "We play to win!" They go off on "retreats" and "planning days", and return with whole rafts of initiatives to "unpack".

There is a feverish exchange of emails written, of course, in code: "Many thanks for SWOT analysis of SARG. Pls fwd to CDTL's and MT for POF's then attend SENDA sessions with rspct to PRED and SAR. Over and out."

Stockpiling of supplies has started: hundreds of white ring-binders have now arrived, and instructions are being issued for their use: red labels for programme files, blue ones for self-assessment and yellow for achievement data.

Lesson plans are to be printed in chamois and schemes of work in salmon. Parts of the college are being turned into specially- equipped "base rooms" so that at any time the inspectors can view schemes of work, analyse data and pore over the past six years' retention and achievement figures.

The buildings are having a make-over: the corporate colours of burgundy and grey have been replaced by two shades of green. Presumably, like the Queen, inspectors think all FE colleges smell of paint.

The chairs in the staff lounge are rearranged almost weekly as we strive to create the right feel. Workmanlike but cosy is the aim. The words "deckchairs on the Titanic" are whispered in corridors.

On the ground, the troops are getting edgy: the normal three-page lesson plan has been replaced by a seven-page time-and-motion study. The title page summarises the lesson, the next page summarises the group, then there are three pages of planning, one for key skills, a page for learning styles, and finally a summary of the summaries: every day, every lesson for the six weeks prior to inspection.

Examples of good practice are circulated to the foot soldiers:

2.40 enter classroom

2.42 begin to take register

2.46 complete register

2.48 make first eye contact

2.53 enter teaching and learning mode

2.57 cross-check initial exchanges with learners against key skills map.

We are assured that we are on target and that soon we will be in "a state of readiness for inspection".

We can expect a coalition force from Ali and Ofsted: up to 25 inspectors bringing their own photocopiers, fax machines and lap tops. Presumably they will arrive in their own trucks or helicopters.

These will be truly superhuman people: men and women capable of observing 15 lessons a day, giving feedback, writing up the results and attending endless meetings. Then they will return to their barracks.

I do not think they are going to take any prisoners.

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