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When thinking about the old fashioned and stereotypical view of inspectors, one usually pictures a severe, slightly ascetic looking man with thin frame glasses and a scowl in his very mouth finding fault with everything and everyone in sight.

If that antiquated notion had not been effectively consigned to the dustiest of history books by now, then the presentation of David Sherlock CBE, the Chief Inspector for the soon-to-be-defunct Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) on the importance of a good inspection regime on Work Based Learning (WBL) provision has slammed the leather "“ bound cover on the matter once and for all. His erudite and witty lecture raised several issues of concern for the assembled delegates of the Association of Learning Providers (ALP) conference.

The Challenge

It has almost become a matter of course to mention the deplorable condition of the UK skills levels and league position in education and training when compared to our economic competitors. Mr. Sherlock drew this into the arena for WBL provision and inspection, pointing out that the vocational sector had never been under such pressure to deliver. He also mentioned the effect that this strain has had on many people within FE, commenting that it was "not an accident" that he felt so much older after his time in the sector!

The need to realign the workforce, due to demographic concerns as well as the need to raise the skills levels of the nation, would be the key to meeting the challenges of the changing birthrate. Mr. Sherlock also stated that, as part of this fundamental adjustment that Britain would need to undergo, it would be necessary to move from a model of public service provision to a mixture of private sector and charitable agency involvement to meet demands from all sides.

The exact level of success that has been supported by the guidance and help of the dedicated team at the ALI is also a matter for debate, it seems. Less than an hour after the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education Bill Rammell MP referred to the rate of either inadequate or just satisfactory provision as 12%, Mr. Sherlock revised the figure upwards. However, the standards or norms, as he said, should continue to move forward. He pointed to the early months of this year, saying that approximately 48% of those inspected between January and March 2006 gained either an inspection Grade 1 or 2.

The Sands of Time

The times, however, change, and the inspections will change as well. Due to the alterations in the inspection agency alignment, the baton, he said, is now being passed to the providers themselves; thus self "“ assessment and evaluation take on ever greater importance. Inspection will continue to be an integral part of FE, with or without the ALI "“ as will the weeding out of poor provision, with some 250 poor providers gone from the sector in the past five years.

With the passing of the ALI, the achievements of this agency should not be forgotten. As Mr. Sherlock stated, the ALI managed to operate at a level of 1,000 inspections per year, with 99% of reports being published within just six weeks of inspection. According to his feedback, and in spite of the initial teething trouble of the ALI, the satisfaction levels for providers with the inspection body has remained high.

Mr. Sherlock looked back with pride on the missions that he sees as having been successfully completed; the integrated programme of success, the softer touch inspection processes, and what he described as "world class" assessment measures. Looking forward to the level playing field, he again stressed the importance both of private involvement in the sector, and the important task now on the shoulders of the ALP members. Mr. Sherlock put it succinctly, stating: "Sustaining the revolution is your job."

Jethro Marsh

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