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Benefits and dangers of DIY inspections

The inspectorate is "Her Majesty's" for historical reasons, but it retains regal associations in that its arrival in schools and colleges is preceded by the frantic application of spit and polish which precedes a royal visit. Judging by the frequent criticisms in HMI reports of the state of the fabric, the spit and polish is metaphoric rather than actual, but every headteacher and principal knows the need to ensure that the right documentation is in place - even if newly written - before the inspector calls.

The HMIs are not stupid. Having given generous warning of their descent, they know what is done to prepare for it. Now they are asking schools to ensure that preparations are done to a pattern. More importantly, they hope that schools will look critically at themselves even when no HMI visit is in the offing.

The new HMI document, How Good is Our School? (page three) attempts to turn the conclusions of the previous report on standards and equality into coherent and achievable performance indicators which schools should apply to themselves. One distinct advance is reducing hundreds of possible criteria to 33. Schools already produce development plans. They have been shown by the Government Audit Unit the advantages of, and techniques for tackling, self-evaluation. Now they and their local authorities are being asked to apply the judgments which HMI would use on their own visits.

Heads and their staff will need help, especially in making time available. They will also need training in being rigorous without resort to breast-beating. Schools are being encouraged to recognise their strengths (the basis for development planning) and to build on these.

They should not regard the exercise as a threat, but equally they have to be alert to weaknesses - another aspect of successful development planning. As Ian Smith argues in the adjoining column, praise is an undervalued tool in education. It has its place in self-evaluation.

Ever since the publication of examination tables and the introduction of primary testing (which could lead to school-by-school comparisons, though it has not yet), there has been a fear that evaluation will depend on so-called "hard" indicators rather than those which are more difficult to use. The inspectorate would like to convince the Conservative right that school staff are the best allies in raising standards. Therefore attempts are being made, slowly it must be said, to interpret exam results in the context of a school's intake and character - the much debated "value-added" dimension.

Performance indicators applied by teachers themselves represent another stage, by adding a wide range of qualitative judgments to existing quantitative ones. The success of the exercise will depend on gaining goodwill in schools and that in turn hangs on the need to make time and resources available.

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