LiBeL Column

ISO Rules OK

Columns from The Nation newspaper

What a school needs to do to get that treasured status

The very mention of this, ahem, quality standard brightens up the eyes of garden centre and pet store owners throughout Bangkok. If a school or college is considering buying or even, in some extreme cases, achieving ISO status, then a few hundred thousand baht’s worth of landscaping work, ornamental flowers and Japanese carp is the first order of the day.

A common misconception is that if a school attains ISO status then it’s a top quality establishment that provides top quality teaching for top quality students. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case and in reality the attainment of ISO is more down to the combined efforts of gardeners and landscape artists than the teachers.

My previous college is in the process of applying for ISO certification – every single, living thing (including the street dogs that wander into the canteen from time to time) has a yellow, plastic name tag on it. One farcical scene involved plants being moved from one place to another during an ISO inspection. The college was suffering an unexpected plant deficit, therefore the small number of well cared for potted shrubs were being lugged around from building to building. Thus, no matter where the inspectors went, they were sure to be greeted by the sight of yuccas swaying in the breeze.

At the entrance to my present school a large sign proudly proclaims its ISO status. We’ve got orchids hanging from balconies and a veritable jungle was planted near the new toilet block, which has since withered and died. Apparently ISO doesn’t require you to actually tend to the plants, only to plant them.

Of course I’m oversimplifying the ISO application process, plants are only half the equation. The other half involves putting multicoloured stickers on everything that isn’t animal or vegetable. It’s boom time for stationery shops. Circular day glow stickers cover every surface and, accompanying each set of stickers, is a chart that explains, in simple language, what each sticker corresponds to. In case that isn’t enough and people still have problems working out how to switch on the room lights, the corresponding item, be it a light, fan, cupboard etc has an identical sticker on it.

As if spending half the schools annual budget on greenery and the remainder on ‘idiot proofing’ rooms wasn’t enough, then the amount of paperwork involved in getting the simplest of tasks done increases dramatically. There is now a procedure for everything. You want a new stapler, fill out a request form, hand it to the head of your department who will sign it and pass it along to her senior.

At this point you discover that the school’s one carp short of the required ISO approved compliment, so your request has been denied. The following day a new carp arrives, two days later the fish is found belly up – it appears to have been bludgeoned to death with an office implement. Fellow teachers notice a smug smile of revenge on your face. And so the circle of ISO life grinds on.

Of course the fact that your school has ISO status does have it’s good points – for a start the school can charge higher fees to unsuspecting parents who are led to believe that ISO status somehow equates to a higher standard of teaching. ISO merely states that apart from having a few pot plants and a large fishpond, the school has written procedural manuals for everything that a procedural manual can be written for.

ISO only guarantees that endless procedures will be followed. Applied to a factory environment, for which ISO was originally intended, this means that all the products will be produced in an identical manner. The product may well be a pile of crap but that’s irrelevant as long as the specified procedures were carried out during the manufacturing process.

It has been mentioned that the only companies that apply for ISO 9002 are those who cant compete either because their products are of low quality or over priced. It’s hoped that having an ISO seal of approval will increase sales amongst gullible consumers.

Ditto schools and colleges in Thailand? You tell me. After schools in Hong Kong went on an ISO rampage, a report in Newsweek, I think, quoted one of the territory’s top academics as noting that the profusion of schools leaping on the ISO bandwagon was the worst thing to happen to the education system in living memory.

Fine if you’re building robots, not so good if, on the one hand you’re trying to promote ‘child-centered learning’ and on the other insisting that there’s a set way to do everything and that all kids are treated in an identical manner. “I’m a person, not a number”. Technically, yes, but in a class of 65, No. Sorry son, you’re number 31698 in a never ending series of blank faces.