The frustrations of an inspector

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

I was on inspection recently and, yet again, found myself frustrated by the college’s self-assessment report. It wasn’t the weariness brought on by the usual furlongs of PR text, it was far more saddening. You see, the curriculum leads had really worn their hearts on their sleeves and acknowledged their provision had a long way to go to reach ours, let alone their own, expectations. In some instances, it’s taken me up to two years to help providers go through the cultural revolution needed to reach the same level of honesty as was being written in these reports.

Hopefully you’ll understand a little of my frustrations through this one simple example – it’s a problem with which many learning and skills providers can empathise:

  • ‘poor punctuality and attendance’.

That it’s a problem is in no doubt, but is it an issue? And no, this isn’t semantics. This distinction is the single biggest difference between a bureaucratic, misguided quality-improvement plan and one that will channel staff’s energies so well that their investment will result in pretty much guaranteed improvement.

So, problem or issue – what’s the difference? Perhaps if I replace problem with a synonym: symptom. Is ‘poor punctuality and attendance’:

  • a symptom or issue?

It’s a symptom. And you cannot resolve a symptom directly.

To be absolutely blunt about this, you cannot have any symptom at the left-hand side of your development plan followed by the actions you intend to take to resolve it. There is always serious potential for these actions to divert staff from what they should be doing by increasing the bureaucracy in your system.

Here’s the test we use when we’re looking at an aspect of provision (and it can explain why sometimes inspectors appear to be Rottweilers and just won’t let something lay). To find out whether it’s a symptom or an issue, simply ask ‘why’ five times (but don’t take the ‘five’ too literally).

So let’s run the test: Why is punctuality and attendance poor? If we can find an answer, then punctuality and attendance are not the root cause of the issue, but a symptom of something deeper.

Here are some possible answers.

  • All the lessons begin the same way, with the teacher writing up the aims and objectives of the lesson on a flip chart. No matter what time you turn up to the lesson, they’re up there at the front: so it doesn’t matter if you’re late.
  • Lesson openings are missable – learners aren’t left curious, engaged and excited about what they’re going to experience in the lesson.
  • The lessons are boring.
  • At the end of a lesson, teachers don’t excite learners with an advert for the unmissable experience they’ll have in next week’s lesson.
  • The teaching strategy relies too much on learners ‘getting on with their work’ in lessons. Learners know they can just as easily do this elsewhere, so why should they bother to turn up to class?
  • Whenever less confident learners are asked a question in class, the pressure of answering in ‘public’ makes them clam up and their confidence ebb away.
  • Lessons are over-dominated by the outspoken learners (and by this, don’t read ‘most confident’) so lessons often descend into a dialogue between the teacher and The Dominator.

And I could go on.

Now let’s look at what the college wrote as the resolution action.

  • ‘Ensure all classes start on time and finish on time.’
  • ‘Set standards for attendance with all students and monitor closely through the register system.’

Will those actions resolve any of the underlying causes of the symptom? Are you surprised that after 15 months of finger wagging and arm twisting, attendance is averaging around 70% in term three? So I guess you’re now with me on my frustration…

But my blog is far from done. I haven’t got to my bombshell punchline yet.

Earlier I said that we ‘ask why five times’ when we’re trying to establish the root cause of the observable symptom. So now go back to the first suggested answer and ask why again. You see, it’s very easy for leaders and managers to blame front-line staff for issues with provision, so it can be very revealing to ask why they behave in a certain way. Here goes:

  • why do all lessons begin with a clear (and dull) statement of the aims and objectives of the lesson rather than using a curiosity-filled or provocative approach that captures every learners’ interest and has them on the edge of their seats? (We call this the Meerkat moment, by the way.)

Hm. Revealing isn’t it? Answers on a postcard (or, as we’re now in the 21st Century: in the comments box below).

Now go down the bullets and ask ‘why’ on the rest. Dare you go back to your own quality-improvement plan to see whether you’ve got symptoms or issues in your left-hand column?

[Poor retention: symptom or issue?

Poor pass rates: symptom or issue?

Poor high grades: symptom or issue?]

You just might be opening up your road to outstanding.

Tony Davis

Director, Centre for Creative Quality Improvement


  1. Cliff hall
    September 2, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    This is a really powerful insight into how we can improve self assessment and improvement planning. Extremely useful to have these ideas set out when you have delivered a great development session for us ( yesterday) and the blog reinforces and illuminates some of the key learning. Thanks!

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