Recognising and Recording Progress and Achievement (RARPA) in non-accredited learning developed out of work established by the WEA in the 1990s called 'learning outcomes'. That dealt with the accusation that adult education, without the rigour of external qualifications, could be studied with no evidence of learning.
RARPA is based on a five stage process that covers basic good practice in teaching and learning. In recent years RARPA has become a condition for receiving public funding for non-accredited learning provision (see NIACE toolkit here). There is no doubt that the systematic implementation of the staged process as a standard has improved provision in the WEA. Not least because it helped some tutors develop and others to decide to leave.
However, along the way in wider policy terms it has become both marginalised from developmental discussion as the skills strategy has dominated and, at the same time, highly managerialised and integrated into the regulatory and funding compliance superstructure. It is clear now that the Ofsted is not completely happy with the arrangement. Over a year ago one lead inspector's view when briefing inspectors was reported as: "RARPA: it's not working, is it?"
One aspect of this is that the recording process and the use of that to create data and 'evidence' has become the main driver. Apparently, in a recent study on formative assessment, almost all tutors in non-accredited provision knew what RARPA was but many didn't know the Staged Process. This has two effects: one is it reduces the possibility of great teaching and learning, exchanging the best for the most compliant; second, it places summative assessment on a pedestal thus losing the first four stages and reinforces the State perspective of recent years that qualifications are all!
From this summer, this will be taken to the extreme where LSC funding Adult Safeguarded Learning provision will have to return individual 'achievement' data to the LSC so that comparative judgements can be made on non-accredited learning in inspection.
"Completion of achievement data [for non-accredited provision] will be voluntary from 2008/09 and a requirement from 2009/10." Ofsted guidelines for Adult & Community Learning Inspections.
This is really taking the whole issue of non-accredited learning rapidly in the wrong direction.
The key is in the classroom and the relationship between the tutor and the students as a group and individually. Proper, imaginative teaching and good formative assessment combined with respect and interest in students need to be central. Nothing new in that. The Black Report Download Blackbox exposed this danger in schools years ago:
"Teachers’ feedback to pupils often seems to serve social and managerial functions, often at the expense of the learning functions."
"The giving of marks and the grading functions are over-emphasised, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are under-emphasised."
This month's NIACE events on reporting research into Formative Assessment reinforced the problematic gap that is emerging between issues in the classroom and the industrial harvesting of outcomes to inform inspection and account for funding. In that, good, straightforward teaching practice which includes effective questioning of students, appropriate feedback and self or peer assessment by students were shown to be key techniques to help people progress.
We need to get this back into the classroom. We need to see it as part of a process where the student is as important as the subject and the interaction between them, mediated by the tutor is the interesting bit. We don't need to offset reduced cost inspections by introducing statistically unreliable data - and put the cost of that on providers.
Maybe the new White Paper can give some hope. In theory the burgeoning industry of 'simplification', 'bureaucracy reduction' and 'self-regulation' should have prevented this; in fact it seems accelerating the vanillaisation of adult learning. We can't afford an inspection system that is reduced to the equivalent of a chap coming round to read the meter. A new commitment to informal adult learning should place the student at its heart and sweep away the managerialism and survelliance of the regulatory superstructure. Then let that be properly inspected - beyond a quick glance at a web-portal of meaningless achievement stats.