Any partners for inspection tango?

Chris Woodhead

I can understand Keith Anderson's concern (TES, October 13) on reading the front-page report "Inspectors accused of going soft for profit". However, my "blistering attack" on local education authorities amounts to no more than a discussion with Graham Lane and Association of Metropolitan Authorities colleagues about the tension that is inevitable in the work of all LEAs.

On the one hand, there is the need to respond as a consultant to schools requiring support; on the other, there is the responsibility to monitor and possibly to challenge the practice of these same schools. It is a tension which is exacerbated when the continuing employment of LEA staff depends upon schools buying back their services.

This is a statement of fact. It does not amount to anything so dramatic as an accusation of "unprofessional conduct" and it does not justify an outburst against a system of national inspection.

I'm sorry to disappoint him, but the Office for Standards in Education is not in deep trouble. The market for secondary school inspections is extremely healthy and competition, as he recognises, is driving the price down. The primary market was very sluggish but is now picking up. It will deliver 12.5 per cent more inspections this year than last. The Additional Inspector initiative will result in some 2,000 schools being inspected, giving a total of around 5,000 primary inspections during 1995-96.

I agree that some reports have been excessively bland. But we have taken steps in revising the framework to ensure that judgments on the quality of teaching and learning are focused much more sharply.

As to the charge that the inspections are no more than a snapshot, I can only say that the average inspection of a secondary school, at approaching 50 inspector days, amounts to a pretty lengthy snapshot. And when we have six inspector days devoted to the inspection of two-teacher schools, it is the intensity of the exposure of teachers to scrutiny which worries me, not the superficiality of the process.

Keith Anderson asks why LEAs should work with OFSTED. The answer is that we now have a national system of inspections undertaken to national criteria. It is a system which is identifying those schools which are failing to provide their children with an adequate education. It is a system which gives parents information about the strengths and weaknesses of the schools their children attend or might attend.

This is something to which LEAs should contribute. I do not for one moment pretend that our procedures cannot be improved. Of course they can. But he is looking not for improvements but root-and-branch abolition.

What he would prefer is "a continuous process of monitoring, evaluating and inspection". If I were a head, his words would send shivers down my spine. Schools do not want a continuous process of inspection. Neither do most of them need it. School improvement does not depend upon the hovering presence of the supportive LEA. It is headteachers and governors who are responsible for schools and it is teachers, and only teachers, who can raise standards. To suggest, as he does, that schools quickly "forget" the messages of inspection is simply to patronise those who are working so hard to review their own progress and act upon points identified through external inspection.

I would like to work more closely with Gloucestershire LEA. But it takes two to tango. Does he really want a "partnership"? In his own words, we are "an expensive and largely irrelevant bureaucracy". Given this blistering judgment, does he really think we can add value to Gloucestershire schools?

No, of course, he does not. What he wants is a return to a time when LEAs and only LEAs had the job of monitoring their schools. They may not have done it very well (though some did) but they have learnt, he says, from Her Majesty's Inspectorate. We'll have "critical self-evaluation" to safeguard against all possible weaknesses in the future.

Sorry, I do not buy it. The new system may have imperfections, but it is a vast advance on what was there before. Keith Anderson rejects this progress. He still sees the LEA as centre stage. He cannot envisage a world in which it is heads who call the tune and who are accountable to the communities they serve through an open, rigorous and national system of inspection.

Chris Woodhead is Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools

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