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How to bounce back from `failure'

Q) In a recent column you were confident that schools did not need to be anxious about inspectoral partiality and prejudice. How do you square that with a situation where an independent inspection team's judgment that a school was failing has been overturned by HM inspectors?

And what compensation would you suggest for the distress caused to the staff and the damage done to the school's reputation in the community?

A) What I claimed was that the Office for Standards in Education has put in place particular measures to ensure that inspectoral judgments are not affected by prejudice or partiality.

But even the OFSTED safeguards are not proof against human fallibility. It is inevitable that inspectors will sometimes make errors of judgment. And, even then, there are ways of correcting or minimising these, through the registered inspector's responsibility for oversight of team members' conduct and judgments, through opportunities available to schools to present evidence that would countermand apparently mistaken judgments, and in extreme cases, through appeal to OFSTED. But most differences of opinion are not serious enough to require that. They are soon resolved and quickly forgotten.

The judgment that a school is failing is a different matter, probably the most serious charge that can be levelled against a school and one that is bound to have unpleasant connotations for staff. That it is a judgment not lightly made is clear from the regulations and safeguards with which OFSTED hedge it about, the requirement that it has to represent the collective view of the entire team, the need for validation by HMI and not least the requirement that it be based on substantial evidence of conspicuously poor performance in important aspects of children's education and welfare.

Consequently it would be both unlikely and difficult for teams to allow prejudice or partiality to be any part of the basis of such a serious judgment. It is therefore hardly surprising that the number of "failing" judgments requiring reversal by HMI is tiny, a small fraction of 1 per cent , at most a couple of schools out of almost 800 primaries inspected each term.

But, as you imply, all this is little consolation for the school involved, where there seems to have been a considerable inspectoral misjudgment. Of course such an experience would be a harrowing one for the staff, a dreadful blow to morale and confidence. There is no compensation of the kind you possibly envisage, save the official assurance that the original judgment was mistaken.

However, in the strictest sense, there should be no damage done to the school's reputation in the community, since the report does not technically exist, and will not be received by the governing body, until HMI have validated the judgments.

What the school will have had is an oral summary of the main findings, for governors, and a general oral briefing for the head and staff.

Such information is confidential until the written report is formally received by the governors, so the parents, and the community at large should have no knowledge of any judgments until that time.

But it would be quite naive to hope that such diverting news would remain confidential for long. What can a school do to protect or salvage its reputation and inform parents and the community of the true state of affairs? Parents, of course, will all receive a summary of the report with the proper information. But I believe it would be wise for the governing body to issue a press statement, or at least ensure local papers carry a piece, setting out positive aspects of the report and the issues for action, and emphasising that there are no causes for concern and no call for special measures.

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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