From education to employment

Extraordinary quality – at no cost!

Chris Thomson

I once heard the principal of a large college concede that the results were not as good as they might be because they hadn’t been able to appoint a quality manager. I was startled by this and as usual too slow on the uptake to inquire further.

But it got me thinking. How could the quality of the college’s results depend on a single role? We had someone who maintained the college’s quality processes but only that. Was this just because my college was much smaller or was I missing something?

And more fundamentally, what were we talking about when we used the word ‘quality’ and who should be responsible for it?

Reflecting on the conversation what I now began to feel was mistrust. The principal had spoken as if it probably was their responsibility to know why results were below par but if it turned out this depended on an appointment that couldn’t be made, well too bad. This struck me as not right. I was convinced there were four things any principal had to feel personally responsible for: financial health, exam results, strategic direction and the wellbeing of staff. If plan A for fixing the results had failed there needed to be a plan B. At once. No delay.

And what was the Quality Manager supposed to fix?

Well, the results, apparently. But the results depended on the students’ learning and that depended on the teaching and tutoring. What could a Quality Manager do about that? Apart from possibly managing the staff development budget, I could only think of two things. They might be responsible in some way for monitoring quality, particularly in intervening if they judged it to be poor or they might be in charge of college-wide initiatives aimed at improving quality.

Quality improvement and intervention, where needed, are pretty vital things.

But it seems to me the appointment of a Quality Manager might be quite an expensive way of falling short in both areas.

College-wide quality initiatives must, by definition, be generic. To have any impact staff not only have to have faith in the validity of the training, they must also possess both the ability and the willingness to make the generic relevant to their specific context.

The likelihood of this happening is further mitigated by responsibility for quality intervention lying with a middle manager. If the college principal has signalled by this appointment that quality is not something that is a close personal concern to them the chances are this won’t be lost on staff.

But a college principal can’t very well be in charge of quality, however important it is so if they spare the cost of an expensive appointment by not appointing a quality manager, how is the gap in responsibility to be filled?

I’d suggest leaving it where it properly belongs.

If the quality of learning depends on the quality of teaching, that’s where responsibility for it should also lie. Teaching (and tutoring) staff are expert in what they do and are more capable than anyone else of finding out what enables effective learning.

Let it be known that the line-management chain up to and including the principal exists to support and resource effective learning throughout the college. That their expectation is that  teachers and tutors will constantly be looking for and trying out new approaches and adapting what they do to that end.

If outstanding quality depends – and how can it not? – on what staff ordinarily do, all that’s needed is the leadership and support to enable them to do it extraordinarily well. Why should that cost a lot of money?

By Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

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