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Could inspection work better?

Gillian Shephard wants to change some of the present inspection arrangements. In consulting, even though on details rather than on central issues, she recognises that this relatively new Office for Standards in Education process must be open to critical analysis if it is to improve in the light of experience.

The pages of The TES in recent months have shown how wide-ranging is the interest in effective and helpful inspection. They have also carried many ideas and proposals for development.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, now that the case for a General Teaching Council is generally accepted, for the profession to show itself capable of a coherent, measured and constructive response to the challenge of making inspection work better?

That is the opportunity being provided by the OFSTIN Development committee at its Oxford Conference from June 19-21.

OFSTIN is the Office for Standards in Inspection, a voluntary and informal group of academics, retired headteachers and others offering a setting in which those with current professional and practical interest in school inspection can share experience and ideas, of whatever flavour.

Supported by the headteacher and teacher associations, OFSTIN is arranging the Oxford event to focus on four key issues. What should be the preferred methodology of inspection? What is the real effect of inspection on schools and the system? Is the current process cost-effective? How can inspection arrangements benefit from considered change?

If the best learning starts from where the learner is and draws on practical experience, then so should learning about inspection. So the first day is devoted to bringing together evidence in the most everyday sense of the term. Those with experience of inspection are being asked: "how was inspection for you?" and "how have you used its outcomes?" Invitations have gone to professional and subject associations, to governors, to local education authorities, to academic researchers - but individual schools and teachers are particularly encouraged to contribute. The fuller the range and variety of insights provided, the greater the stimulus to debate. All are welcome.

On 20 June, the conference goes public: Carol Fitz-Gibbon speaks about methods of inspection and reports on a pilot monitoring project for inspections, while Ted Wragg discusses OFSTED's educational impact. In the afternoon, a summary presentation of the previous day's evidence will be subjected to public scrutiny by a panel of assessors including John Bangs, Anthony Flew, John Gray, Geoff Holman, Jean Rudduck, Sally Tomlinson, Elliott Stern and Josh Silver - people who possess a notable appreciation of education but stand outside the inspection process.

These two days will yield material from which a conference working party will prepare a report for publication. This will pull together the main conference ideas, and link them with proposals such as those from the National Commission and professional associations. It will also draw from practice and experience in other sectors of education, other public services and the commercial world.

All concerned with education have a common aim to raise the achievements of young people, for their sake and for our collective social and economic health. That means improving the effectiveness of learning.

The time has come to build a consensus for school improvement that embraces the profession, the LEAs, the political parties and government. An effective independent inspection service, operating within that consensus, is a necessary ingredient in the subtle mix that helps schools to improve.

Public accountability, quality assurance and school improvement are the three themes of OFSTED's mission. If properly conducted, they become a strong safeguard for the interests of learners and society. The OFSTIN committee hopes that the balance of its Oxford conference can be a catalyst for those who seek to construct that safeguard wisely.

Further information about the conference and how to offer evidence can be obtained from the Conference Secretary: Caroline Westgate, 9 Quatre Bras, Hexham Northumberland NE46 3JY

Chris Boothroyd is an education consultant. He is the former director of Northumberland's supported self study unit.

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