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Evidence overrules personal beliefs

Q You have said, more than once, that you do not believe it possible for primary schools to teach the full national curriculum at key stage 2. Does this mean that some inspectorate views are already formed before inspections take place? If so, is the Office for Standards in Education setting schools up to fail and have you made up your minds about the likely quality of teaching in some subjects in advance of inspection?

A This is a bit like one of those medieval theological disputes about predestination and free will, where it was impossible to reconcile opposing viewpoints. In this case, because I believe it is unlikely that many primary schools, staffed and resourced as they are at present, can manage to teach all the programmes of study to the full range of pupil ability. Does this mean that judgments on this issue are pre-determined and unshakeable? Does it suggest, in fact, that inspectors' judgments generally may be skewed because of the strength of their private convictions? I know that some schools, at least, believe it to be so. If they are right, then it is a most serious matter since some inspections would be, in effect, something of a lottery dependent upon the personal, perhaps impenetrable whims of individual inspectors.

I am confident, however, that it cannot be so because the inspection process requires all judgments to be based on manifest and verifiable evidence. This does not deny inspectors the right, indeed the obligation, to make judgments; it simply requires judgments to be made within a generally recognised framework.

Inspectors, like everyone else in education, hold all kinds of ideas and convictions about schooling. Such opinions are likely to lead to certain expectations about outcomes in specific circumstances - some of them unpalatable, perhaps, such as the probability that many children in severely disadvantaged socio-economic situations may consistently fail to exceed, or even match, national norms in terms of achievement.

But convictions about possibility or probability do not preclude us from being converted by evidence to the contrary. That seems to be the essence of inspection: enquiry according to generally accepted criteria, to establish true states of affairs, based on substantial, if not irrefutable, evidence against which speculation and supposition can be modified.

I am sure, therefore, that anxiety on the score of inspectorate partiality is probably groundless, since prior opinions and personal beliefs have to be subordinated to the evidence inspection provides.

Bill Laar is a registered inspector. Write to him co The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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