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Expect the light-touch inspection to multiply;Briefing;Reseacrh Focus

Researchers Neil Ferguson and Peter Earley found that primary heads and registered inspectors have much the same hopes and aims for the inspection system

It may be hard to believe, but headteachers and school inspectors appear to want to see the same reforms of the inspection system.

We have reached this conclusion after canvassing the views of 250 primary headteachers and 100 registered inspectors (RgIs). Each had been asked for two pieces of advice that they would offer to MPs on the House of Commons select committee discussing the Office for Standards in Education.

Both heads and the inspectors wanted inspection teams to help and advise schools. They recommended that follow-up visits by the registered inspector should become established practice. Heads agreed that inspectors should not "hit and run" but should show a continuing interest in the schools they deal with.

Both also felt that the notice period before an inspection should be reduced. As we have found in a separate study, schools are often loath to undertake major new developments during this anxiety-ridden period.

The third most common piece of advice was to involve local authorities in inspection, as they are seen as an under-used asset.

Inspectors were concerned that some of their colleagues have little or no experience of teaching the national curriculum, or of teaching the phase they are inspecting. They complained that the quality of inspection teams is variable, and said that RgIs and team members' fitness to carry out inspections should be more rigorously monitored. Heads were also concerned by some inspectors' lack of recent, relevant school experience.

Both groups also regretted that the inspection process did not encourage schools' to carry out self-evaluations and argued that the scope of inspections was too wide. There was, however, one clutch of issues which angered only the inspectors: low fees, competitive tendering, "cowboy" contractors and the sacrifice of quality to reduce costs.

Some comments were strongly-worded: "The market set up by OFSTED is having a detrimental effect on the quality of inspections . . . Very low fees are now being paid by contractors . . . Good team inspectors and RgIs are leaving the market-place rapidly and soon there will be a shortage of career inspectors."

Some inspectors would also like the select committee to consider the development of an expanded HM Inspectorate which would absorb some registered inspectors.

No one knows how the MPs will react to these suggestions. Having listened to a welter of evidence about the unreliability of inspectors' judgments; the chief inspector's distinctive, personal style; the punitive nature of inspections and the superiority of rigorous self-evaluation complemented by external moderation processes, the committee might recommend far-reaching reforms.

Let's assume, however, that they feel safe simply attending to the parts of the system causing most discomfort. What then?

To increase the number of HMIs (there are now only about 200) or abolish contractors would strike at the heart of the system, and would seem to signal that OFSTED or "the market" had proved incapable of providing a better service than its predecessor. The RgIs' advice is unlikely to be heeded but inspectors' disappointment could be reduced by tighter controls on contractors, checks on team-selection procedures and inspectors' credentials and, finally, by some further tightening of OFSTED's quality-assurance procedures.

Even the inspectors' desire to help schools to improve and take account of their self-evaluation data is not without difficulties. The routine provision of support and advice would change the nature and purpose of inspections.

The select committee will probably not want to weaken OFSTED's role in making schools more accountable. Nevertheless, it seems safe to predict that "light-touch" inspection will be extended beyond the 30 per cent of schools at present envisaged and that rigorous, externally monitored self-evaluation procedures will become a requirement for all schools.

If there are doubts about scrapping the market model, providing support and advice in the way that heads and RgIs favour and finding a much more significant role for LEAs, what does this leave?

A further reduction of the period of notice before an inspection would be popular but it cannot be so short that it causes difficulties for the bidding and contracting process. There should be no problems in principle in recommending a tightening of the system for appointing inspectors or of meeting heads' and RgIs' desire for a narrower focus for schools which performed satisfactorily in previous inspections.

However, the committee will have been reminded of the fallibility of inspection teams' judgments and the rapid deteriorations and improvements which can follow changes of leadership in schools. A cautious committee will require safeguards before a more relaxed style of inspection is introduced.

Neil Ferguson and Peter Earley are based at the Management Development Centre, Institute of Education, University of London. The findings of their Nuffield Foundation-funded project on OFSTED inspections will be released in the spring. e-mail * The House of Commons Select Committee is inquiring into the full range of activities of the Office for Standards in Education. It is assessing accountability, reliability and value for money. The committee is also focusing on OFSTED's role in school improvement and its inspections of local education authorities, initial teacher-training institutions and early-years settings. The hearings began in October and will end on February 25. A report is expected after Easter.

* Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings in The TES should send summaries (750 words max) to David Budge, research editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Tel 0171 7823276. E-mail:

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