OFSTED set up a study at the end of last year in order to find out whether pairs of inspectors observing the same lesson would agree on an appropriate grade. It also wanted to know whether the inspectors based their grades on the same recorded evidence.
OFSTED says it already had firm evidence that inspectors make "secure judgments" about schools. About 95 per cent of schools in a survey of more than 2,000 inspected in 1996 broadly agreed that their inspection reports were fair and accurate.
Nevertheless, it will be pleased with the consistency of the 173 dual observations that were carried out during inspections last November and December. In all but 3 per cent of cases, inspectors agreed to within one grade on the seven-grade scale.
The inspectors awarded identical grades for 66 per cent of the lessons even though only a third of the inspector-pairs said that they worked together regularly. And they were even more consistent when it came to identifying unsatisfactory teaching (88 per cent agreement) or a very good classroom performance (92 per cent).
"Furthermore, the data suggests that the consistency with which pairs of inspectors identify the same strengths and weaknesses in teaching quality is also high," says the report, written by HMI in conjunction with the Dutch schools inspectorate.
The report says that inspectors who took part in the study had to abide by strict rules. Registered inspectors were asked to verify that the evidence and grades submitted for each dual observation had been derived independently and had not been altered subsequently.
Even so, the study is open to criticism because the response rate from the inspectors invited to take part was low (13 per cent). As the report's authors admit, it is therefore possible that the sample is representative only of the more confident and effective inspectors.
"At best, however, we could assume that the sample is fully representative of the work of all independent inspectors," the report says. But its authors accept that even if it is, there is room for improvement in the consistency of inspectors' findings, particularly as the pairs of inspectors often disagreed over whether teachers' use of time and resources had been efficient.
"It is unacceptable that in 3 per cent of the sample the grades differed by two. OFSTED is committed to the continual improvement of inspection quality, and its monitoring procedures are now beginning to focus more sharply on the quality of judgments made by individual inspectors."
Aspects of the Reliability and Validity of School Inspection Judgments of Teaching Quality, by Peter Matthews, J Roger Holmes, Paul Vickers and Bep Corporaal, will appear in a future issue of Educational Research and Evaluation.
In his keynote speech to student researchers, Professor Michael Bassey called for recognition for those who break new ground in education research: Why are there no Nobel prize-winners in educational research? Our critics will say that this is because educational researchers do not achieve the breakthroughs of prize-winners in science. It would be false to attribute this to differences in the calibre and diligence of the researchers. It is differences in the subjects that are responsible.
In science, a major breakthrough is hailed as such because a few eminent scientists acclaim it and begin to use it. In education, a major breakthrough is achieved when thousands of teachers begin to use it in their classrooms.
This entails going through the stages of incredulity ("How could anyone suggest such a ludicrous idea?"), to acceptance ("We'll have a go at it, then"), to con-descension ("Well, we've always done something like this really").
Educational advance comes from a subtle interplay or discourse between researchers, teachers, policy-makers and others, as the following examples illustrate:
Gender studies: It is now widely accepted that differential attention paid to girls and to boys may have a profound effect on their learning. This understanding arose from scores of research papers written at a time of intensive activity by feminists, and when concerns about equal opportunities were being championed by legislators.
But the idea only became embedded in the consciousness of teachers because thousands talked about it, agonised over it and reflected on their classroom practice. To name one or two researchers as the originators of this discourse would be to deny the important roles of so many others.
Assessment in primary schools: This was introduced as a result of legislation by a government that believed that communicating academic results to parents would activate market forces and raise the quality of schools. In the event, research ideas about formative assessment entered into teacher discourse alongside the Government's drive for summative assessment.
Short-term curriculum planning came to be influenced by assessments of what had recently been achieved by pupils and a revolution in children's educational development began. School inspections also played a strong role in this change.
A few politicians, scores of researchers, hundreds of inspectors and thousands of teachers have all contributed to putting primary-school assessment in England and Wales at the cutting edge of educational development in the world. A shared Nobel prize to 20,000 primary schools for this breakthrough would be well-merited.
Educational research rarely provides "quick fixes". As the researcher Helen Simon pointed out recently, what many research studies do is offer "opportunities for policy-makers to learn from the evidence, to expand the scope of inquiry, to reconstruct their own understanding in order to inform their judgments". Sardonically she added that this "is not always seen by policy-makers to be a strength". (Cambridge Journal of Education 26, 2, 230)
An example of this appeared last week when Peter Robinson, of the London School of Economics, published a report of research which followed people born in the same weeks in 1958 and 1970. It apparently suggests that class size, homework, setting and streaming and teaching methods have no impact on literacy and numeracy, whereas social class does.
This challenges the Government's view that better educational methods will lead to a stronger economy. Is this a fantastic breakthrough in educational understanding?
No. If the report stands up to academic scrutiny, (as yet only newspaper accounts are in the public domain) it will merit thorough discussion by teachers, researchers and policy-makers. Through this discourse we may learn more about the relationships between education and the economy. This could affect future policies.
Professor Michael Bassey is the executive secretary of the British Educational Research Association.