Audit's reception too dramatic

August 20, 1999

The article on the Quality Assurance Agency's audit of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama ("Stars fail to shine for a QAA with systems in its eyes", THES, August 13) manages to obscure and confuse some critical issues.

We are immensely proud of what we provide at the Guildhall School and we know - and we hear and we see - the extraordinary quality of the performing abilities of our students, both present and past. We rely not only on our own views, of course, but also on the evidence of those who see and judge our performances. (Of our production of Faure's Penelope in June 1999 The Sunday Telegraph said: "Standards are obviously and audibly high at the Guildhall".) We did indeed invite the QAA to make an audit, the purpose of which, we all acknowledge, is nothing to do with performance but about our procedures. As we are not part of the Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded world, we have not been obliged to be audited.

We have been more than happy to maintain our much-envied independence; that is one reason why the Guildhall has such a lively spirit of imagination and enthusiasm. It may also be due to the fact that some 39 per cent of our students bring their energies and considerable abilities from 42 different countries. It is a treasured quality, not to be abused.

But we are seeking our own degree-awarding powers and, for that, a QAA report is necessary.

We found the preparation for the visit time-consuming but largely healthy.

At all times, we tried to keep our minds uncongested and expressed our situation as openly, forthrightly and as honestly as possible. We had nothing to hide. Indeed, I recall vividly the comment made by one of the audit team at its final session: he said that the visit had been "an exhilarating experience".

When we received the draft report, we responded with more than 50 comments, not only on the accuracy but, more important, on the conclusions being drawn from certain events.

Take just one example, the reference to "high failure rate". This conclusion was based on the fact that in one particular year - three years ago - a proportionately large number of students in just one department (vocal studies) did fail. It has not happened again. It is ironic that this becomes a generalisation that the school has a "high failure rate".

Many of the other statements are similarly contorted. Indeed, if some of the conclusions had been accurate, they would certainly have led to the drastic action recommended by the audit.

I have been assured by the QAA that it does certainly not share the use of such phrases as "the worst" or a "damning" report. They see the report, as we do, as a means towards achieving our ends, and the recommendations are similar in style and presentation as for other audits of other institutions.

The QAA is very much aware of our strong reservations about the report, and it is to our deep regret and disappointment that many inaccuracies and misconceptions remain.

However, there are undoubtedly aspects from which we have learnt and are looking forward to improving so that we remain not merely "one of the prestigious music and drama conservatoires" but the most prestigious.

Ian Horsbrugh Principal, Guildhall School of Music and Drama The funders and students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama need only note that the QAA acknowledges that the school is "pre-eminent in the world of conservatoires".

The school's staff and "systems" have produced the only outcome that matters. The fact that their internal procedures are inconsistent with those recognised by the QAA should give the QAA cause for reflection on what matters and what does not.

You report that the QAA team contained no specialists in music or drama.

Which specialist in which subject would be willing to work for it?

John Oliver Barbican, London.

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