An inspector calls
If you work in education in the UK, it is a rare moment indeed when you are not being inspected by one organisation or another. The QAA might be breaking down the front door, with a posse of UKBA inspectors barging in behind them. Or you might have the ISI launching a tactical exploration of your doings. And the kind-hearted folk at Accreditation UK might pop up too, flashing their warrants and asking if you’d mind if they just had a little old look round. (Un)Surprisingly, institutions aren’t always delighted about this. Personally, my thoughts are in flux (never a good position to take at the start of an article…). Let’s discover what I think.
I plan to look at some of the arguments put forward by people who (feel that we should) embrace inspections. Then I’ll try and follow it up, in the interests of balance, with a consideration by some who believe that inspections are not particularly helpful. At some point, I will try to address some of the more abstract and theoretical concerns that might be voiced. And then conclude with a hodgepodge of evasion and avoidance.
So, inspections rock, right? If you’ve got nothing to worry about, there’s nothing to fear. The inspectors are just coming in to accredit the good practice that we have been putting into action over the ages. Any negative criticism is a welcome pointer for how to build on our success. In a world awash with providers (not any more; thanks government!), consumers need impartial guidance. If we are to be considered a profession, then we need to submit ourselves to the scrutiny of some sort of regulating body. We welcome inspections. They make us better.
Phew! That felt a bit dirty. Inspections are clearly the work of the devil. A bunch of power-dressers who are so far removed from the day-to-day practice that they have no idea what it’s really like; interfering busy-bodies who stomp into learning centres and proceed to look for faults to justify their own existence. There’s nothing reliable about judgements made following a snapshot of an organism as complex as a school. We like and agree with all of the positive comments that were made but regard all of the negative comments that were made as evidence of how inept the inspectors were: of course, they’ve got to say something bad, haven’t they? Inspectors tend to come in with their checklist and fail to see anything else. If the process actually worked, I can think of X schools that would have been closed down long ago. Why wasn’t our X singled out as being highly commendable?
Phew again. I don’t enjoy spending too long in another person’s brain. What do I think about inspections? Here we go…as a concept, I have no particular beef with inspections. The “industry” sets out some standards and publishes them; organisations sign up to these standards and state their commitment to them; someone comes in from time to time and looks for concrete evidence that these standards are being met, then they go away and write a report on what they’ve seen. These standards are considered by other stakeholders as being desirable within an institution of learning. These others see the report (or more often the logo that testifies to the resulting accreditation) and this helps them discount some institutions and give more serious consideration to others. Look – what’s not to like?
It’s just not that simple, is it? The thing is that there is very little scope to contribute to what those standards are. If you think that OFSTED are enforcing the wrong type of standards, then there’s not really much you can do about this. If you think that the QAA are talking out of their QAArse, your views may be duly noted but you must do as they say; if you think that Accreditation UK has no grasp of what’s really important in a learning institution, you should go and whisper it into a hole in the ground. As Phil Beadle puts it: you don’t get the chance to have a fevered discussion with an Ofsted inspector…they just sit at the back and tick a box that says you are either ‘rotten’, ‘average’, ‘promising’ or ‘conforming fully’. Here then is a key criticism of these august institutions: there is no organisation that has oversight of their own practices. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? [Translation: How can you lose weight by just eating custard?] There is a further irony in this: these organisations tend to follow a very sound evidence-based approach. I know that the QAA looks for a minimum of two sources of evidence for each claim made by an institution. Yet the evidence that underpins the standards they are policing is entirely unclear. QAA will expect an institution to be making good use of a virtual learning environment. Woe betide the institution that says, yes, but we think that Moodle is a crock of shite and have deliberately avoided soiling our hands with it. We think that there is plenty of evidence for how redundant technology is when we consider the fact that for thousands of years, people seemed to get by perfectly well without online quizzes and the like. You may well be right, say the perturbed inspectors, but we are not here to preserve species in danger of extinction. We are here to serve the bright dawn of education. And if you haven’t got a Moodle site, you ain’t worth jack shit. Close this mo’fkr DOWN! Presumably this is because of the extensive research that proves beyond all shadow of a doubt that it is not possible to learn unless you can have your learning supplemented digitally. O, brave new world!
I too have toiled as an inspector. I have tied my tie, buttoned up my jacket and walked into an institution with a briefcase (shamefully true). The image that lingers in my head is a cross between The Apprentice and The Professionals. And now I’ve got the soundtrack to the latter stuck in my head. Today is going to be fun at work…But what I’m trying to say is that I know that an inspector’s lot is not a happy one. Let me elaborate. I became an inspector with one accrediting body because a) I “knew” it would be a good addition to my CV; b) I was seduced by the formative opportunities offered by being able to walk in to new places and seeing how they dealt with things that my institution struggled with; c) the money offered for a single inspection was a four-figure sum. It wasn’t enough. Inspectors are typically (in my limited experience) required to read, digest and turn into a coherent narrative a mountain of text -both written and spoken- and then visit an institution to look for confirming evidence. They invariably have to do this as an extra to their other job. It is a huge task. Typically, they hunt in small teams and these teams are brought together by circumstance, meaning that there are no long term partnerships that ease the inspection ritual. They are under pressure to stick to a very tight schedule and the stakes are typically very, very high. In short, the work of an inspector requires that they either give it their all or that they do a substandard job. A good rule of thumb is that if your inspectors have day jobs, the chances are that they haven’t been able to devote the requisite amount of time to reviewing all of the evidence that you have put before them. This, I think, may account -in part- for why it is rare indeed for an institution to fail an inspection. This setback can be accommodated considerably by the institution supporting the inspectors by putting together a solid self-assessment with clear links to the supporting evidence. John Tomsett has written a magisterial blogpost about preparing for an OFSTED inspection which advises the same (amongst much more useful advice than you will ever find here, I’m afraid).However, the fact that inspectors, like managers and like teachers, are overworked, underpaid and poorly-resourced means that inspections are a flawed diamond at best.
Inspections -as I have said- are not particularly problematic for me…well, would not be particularly problematic for me were they to be mainly formative events that were designed to make us better. As it is, they are decidedly summative and the end results can be severe in the extreme. In this, they are the managerial equivalent of an observed lesson. They are a blunt quality assurance instrument that seeks to soften its blow by disguising itself as an opportunity for professional development. Oh soft! I hear you say, Don’t be so dramatic. Inspections have great formative potential. Hmm. This to me is like a torture victim thinking that her torturer has great marriage potential because he knows all her secrets. The formative potential is virtually obliterated by the fact that the institution is often blinded by the glare of the headlights belonging to the juggernaut of closure. Perhaps it’s just me, but where I work the opportunities for development are often seen as Things-We-Must-Do-To-Stop-Them-Complaining-Next-Time. There might be some lip service given to the areas for improvement (Yes! We absolutely must ensure that teachers become better trained in the asking of open questions), but make no mistake: the focus is not on having a more highly-developed team; it is on passing the next bloody inspection. Does it really matter? Really? you are wondering. Well. Yes. Yes, it does. A teacher who has taken it upon herself to learn more about questioning techniques in education is more likely to really understand, internalise and then disseminate her knowledge about the same than is a teacher who is told to ask fewer yes/no questions but whose teaching style remains essentially unchanged. Confused? Try this for an analogy: in Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler asks the death camp commandant to show a little bit of mercy – it’ll be like playing God, he says in an attempt to appeal to the latter’s disturbing sense of self-worth. Sure enough, at a later point in the film, the commandant gets up from his siesta, picks up his rifle and strolls to the window for his daily spot of inmate shooting. Oskar’s words reverberate in his head and having located his victim in his sights, he puts down the rifle and decides to let the poor man live…all the while remaining the death camp commandant charged with presiding over an industrial-sized torture chamber and murder ground. Oskar’s advice has saved one individual’s life for now, but the leopard remains as spotty as a malnourished teenage boy.
If you’ve read this far, the end of this sentence will mean that you have read nearly 2000 words and I am just getting going. I suspect that the time has come to round it up, publish and be damned. Here is a precis for those of you who have not been able to extract meaning from my early morning logorrhoea: I like the idea of informed feedback on what we are doing; I like the idea of critical apprasial of our faults; I understand the arguments in favour of inspection. However, as with virtually all things in education, I suspect that the concept of inspection is built upon an evidential foundation that is made of marshmallow. I think that inspection in practice is a blunt tool which is wielded to force conformity and to create a power base for those organisations which inspect. It is a commercial imperative and a pedagogical whimsy. Because of this, its formative potential is largely wasted. You cannot expect an organisation to grow and deepen its knowledge under the threat of the cosh. In those cases where development does actually take place, I suspect that it was going to take place anyway.
So what’s needed? I would like to see some sort of consultation about what the standards are; I would like to see people feeling bold enough to question the expectations of inspectors. I would like a broader discussion about the logic of making such crucial judgements about a learning society (which educational institutions are, of course) on the basis of a 2-5 day visit. I would like to see inspectors given the resources that they need to pass judgement on an institution and I would like to see inspections coming from the standpoint of “How can we help you meet/maintain/enhance the standards of good practice”” rather than “How do we know that you are meeting/maintaining/enhancing the standards of good practice?” Most importantly, for this to happen, I would like to see the cosh prised out of the hand of the inspectors.