FRIDAY. Today, we reach the culmination of 15 months of preparation for a quality assessment visit. Colleagues spend all day checking and rechecking the information we have provided. At a conservative estimate, the serried ranks of box files, ring binders and lever-arch files measure over 20 feet of densely packed documents, handouts, samples of work, reports and criteria for everything we - and they - can think of. I wonder how they will manage to read and absorb even a fraction of it, given the schedule of classroom observations and other meetings also packed into a four-day visit.
MONDAY. Assessment week has finally begun. The building gleams, all the lifts are working for once, and the staff sport carefully chosen outfits. With our first meeting with the assessors not scheduled until mid-afternoon, the hours pass agonisingly slowly. The session - with senior staff from the department - creaks as both sides eye one another warily. They comment that we are an all-female department: is this a deliberate policy? and is it a problem for male students? Can't help feeling this question would not have been asked of an all-male department. Other staff join the meeting and the assessors introduce themselves once again. One decides to add the information that he supports football team XYZ; so do the other two men on the team, though the woman looks slightly as though she has been wrong-footed in not having one to support. This might be an attempt at humour, but in the light of the questioning five minutes previously, it seems crass. The reporting assessor seeks to reassure us that the team will be working hard and hopes that this will dispose us to take on board their "criticisms, suggestions and ideas." Note the order, and the omission of praise. Leave feeling very disturbed.
TUESDAY. The first (and only) full day of class observations. Despite a team supposedly chosen to reflect our strengths, some odd choices emerge for observers: a non-native speaker of English for a specialised translation class into English, for example, or subject specialists not attending classes in their own specialism. Is this a lack of organisation or perverseness? Feedback emerges: they are not happy with the level of traffic noise (we're in an inner-city); and a class described as well-structured, well-planned and student-centred is nevertheless marked down because "not everyone spoke". At the meeting held at the end of the day, the reporting assessor opens with "I've got a gentle googly to bowl you". To an all-female group, half of whom are not native speakers of English, this seems a bit insensitive. However, the questioning gets a lot more aggressive than gentle googlies, and demands are made for information that has already been provided. We vent the tension: one in an aerobics class, another at a choir rehearsal, a third by painting.
WEDNESDAY. With superb timing, the university chooses today to circulate a gloomy missive on funding, informing us that operating costs have to be cut and that means staffing costs. "Redundancies cannot be ruled out," it concludes. It's my turn to be assessed. The assessor volunteers beforehand that he feels as though he's been "pushed down to the bottom of a swimming pool". Rapidly censor my immediate reaction and smile sympathetically instead. We become concerned that assessor personality may be playing a major role in the grades given for some class observations. Decide as a group that we were caught off-guard at yesterday's meeting, and frame a few questions and positive points that we wish to stress. I suggest we also counter the sporting metaphor, so we decide to use culinary metaphors in our interventions as much as possible. Maybe it works - the meeting ends up in genuine good humour, even though it didn't start out that way; they had messed up their timetable and failed to attend an important meeting on student achievement and careers, and were still asking for material and information already supplied.
THURSDAY. Final class observations. The hours between the last observation and the feedback are agonising, and the format of the feedback session is not calculated to reduce the inevitable tensions. Signals from the assessors have not been encouraging, but we get a very high mark. There are, though, plenty of contradictions with the other language teams' reports: one department, for example, is commended for adding value for non-traditional entry students, while we are told to concentrate on ensuring that our standard A-level candidates are helped to achieve their full potential. Another department is criticised for not making use of audio-visual aids, yet the HEFCE guidance to assessors makes it clear that the HEFCE "has no preconception of an 'ideal' teaching style". Where is the boundary between judgment and prejudice? Celebratory drinks fall flat; we are all too exhausted and tense but above all bruised by the experience.
FRIDAY. Normal service resumes: one lift is out of order, students queue up outside my office with problems and my desk groans under the weight of work neglected for the past week. I am too exhausted and demoralised to give good classes today; what price "quality"?
The author teaches in a large language department in a city location new university.