If in doubt, ask the learners

Beryl Pratley, a former inspector, says the best way to get to know a college is to enrol as a student and see how it's run at first hand
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The Independent Online

I am a part-time student at a further education college which is "in difficulty" and it may be about to get worse because the inspectors have called. The reason I know about the difficulty is that the local paper mentioned the size of the debt.

I am now in the second year of this one-day-a week course. Since starting, I have kept reminding myself of the policy mantra about "learners being at the heart of the process" but from where I sit on a Friday, it doesn't often feel like that. We have a saintly, patient and skilled course tutor. She responds as much as she can to the sometimes excessive demands of a group of mature students. Beyond that direct relationship, however, is a wilderness of non-systems and non-management. Part-time staff are brought in for a few weeks to provide specialist expertise, and then disappear at short notice, or no notice. The section manager is in his second year of "acting", and we wonder if the rehearsal will ever lead to the real thing. His management skills are sparse, and his interpersonal skills even less evident. We are not in right-on Islington here, but even in the sticks mature students bristle at being written off as a "bunch of bored housewives", especially when they have turned jobs and lives inside-out to make room for a day's study each week. And some of them are men.

Resources are adequate, but dispersed. The energy to have them organised to support the course requirements has come mainly from the students, not the staff. The staff survive by keeping inside a hermetically sealed bubble, containing the bits of life they can cope with, and ignoring everything else. They are touchingly dismissive of most administrative procedures, which are regarded as impositions by "them".

I begin to see their point. As a part-time student, there are probably three people in the college who really matter to me. One is whoever unlocks the doors in the morning and puts the erratic heating on. The second is the person who sells me the cup of coffee that gets me going. The third is my course tutor, who keeps me going. The ever-patient librarians add value to my experience. So what about the four layers of management beyond our teaching team? Tony Henry, the principal of City College Birmingham used to say that no student ever admired a college for its management structure. This one has had two acting principals and two real ones since our course started, and currently doesn't have one at all, but we've never noticed the difference. What about all those people in the Learning and Skills Council (LSC)? It's not apparent that there is much return to us learners from them, and the funds spent on them. For the annual costs of an LSC quality manager we could have our three tatty classrooms painted, the lights fixed, and the rest of the windows cleaned. We could probably also afford some proper working space and somewhere to put our stuff, and there might still be enough left over for some new books in the library.

As for the forthcoming inspection, it's planned to take place over two weeks, with a team of 25-plus. That's going to be more than £60,000 by the time they've finished. The LSC probably knows now what the main conclusions will be and they won't be a surprise to us learners - here at the heart of the process we can see what needs to be fixed, and some of us allegedly "bored housewives" have enough management experience to fix it. I'll bet that Sandra, the emergency care nurse (works nights to fit in her study time and a disabled child), could do it single-handed. But they aren't asking us. For £60,000 we could sort out quite a lot, and write the report as well. We'd do a decent course handbook as a bonus.

My view as a learner is having as much impact on the rest of my work as my years of experience as an inspector and college manager. When I first became an inspector, it was a shock to see what life looked like from the back of the classroom. A great deal could be achieved if inspectors, managers, and above all, LSC staff, were to keep up their experience as learners.

The writer was formerly a senior inspector with the Further Education Funding Council, and a senior adviser to the Adult Learning Inspectorate and Ofsted. She has also been an HMI and further education college principal, and when not a part-time student, works as an education consultant

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