Inspecting the inspectors

The inspection culture is not new but it has certainly reached a new intensity. Unless the children in our schools benefit from the process it must be deemed a failure. A system which concentrates on providing information about schools and the standards they achieve may satisfy some, but is surely secondary to bringing about improvement. This was the view taken by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference when it established its inspection system in 1993-94.

To avoid bureaucracy and wasteful use of resources, HMC decided to train experienced and successful teachers and heads to be inspectors. This not only keeps costs down but ensures that inspection is done by those still engaged in teaching their subject and well aware of the standards achievable. What they lack in inspection experience they make up in current classroom experience.

At the end of the first year 40 schools had been inspected and there had been many exchanges with OFSTED. HMC used ex-HMI and OFSTED-trained lead inspectors. It was decided to take stock of progress in an inspection scheme which differed in important respects to that of OFSTED. Despite this, HMC and the Accreditation, Review and Consultancy Service of the Independent Schools Joint Council asked OFSTED to carry out a review. The report was published this month and the outcome has been much more pleasing than The TES (March 21) suggested.

The HMI who carried out the review visited eight inspections, interviewed personnel, scrutinised reports and checked on the follow-up. They concluded that the HMC scheme is largely successful in achieving its objectives. They commended mechanisms which allow feedback between schools and HMC and concluded that the process was viewed positively by the schools. This is surely preferable to confrontation if improvement is to be brought about.

Criticism is not shirked by HMC inspectors. Each report contains around a hundred recommendations, intended to "make a good school better". HMC is inspecting some of the best schools in the country. Heads accept responsibility for criticism, and OFSTED acknowledges that schools move quickly to address the problems. In some cases remedial action has begun before inspectors arrive. Sometimes inspectors suggest that schools "consider a different approach". OFSTED found that the HMC framework for inspection provided a suitable basis for judgments and those were reliable and valid where rooted in the criteria. The inspections were generally objective and rigorous. Clearly this is not a cosy in-house arrangement, given the intense competition between the schools from which inspectors are chosen.

The calibre of lead inspectors was found to be generally good and often very good; drawing on substantial senior management experience, the intensive training and assessment carried out by HMI and the effective refresher courses, they established good professional relationships with schools and deployed their team well. Team inspectors showed a good knowledge of their subjects, demonstrating objectivity and reporting to senior management in a clear and comprehensive manner.

OFSTED lay down rigid guidelines and some have found the style heavy going. HMI recognised the fluent and accessible style of HMC reports, which gave a detailed and comprehensive picture and a balance of strengths and weaknesses, with deficiencies identified where there was clear evidence. The full reports contain more recommendations than those of OFSTED. It is for schools to decide who, other than the head, chairman of governors, Department for Education and Employment, OFSTED and HMC, should receive copies but the summary report is in the public domain.

With fewer than five working days available, everyone is under pressure to obtain first-hand evidence, write it up and analyse it. HMC has agreed with OFSTED's conclusion that more time must go into monitoring the work of team inspectors and lead inspectors, particularly ensuring general agreement. However, it is not wise to expect inspectors to work late into the night if their judgment is to remain sound the next day.

What about standards? It is not enough to compare HMC schools' performance with national norms. GCE and GCSE give only part of the picture. Schools must ensure that pupils make the best of their abilities. From September additional value-added information will be available from the baseline tests designed by The CEM Centre at Durham University.

By addressing the weaknesses identified by OFSTED, HMC will develop a "rapidly improving system" into a model which will stand comparison with that applied in the maintained sector and yet meets the particular demands of independent schools.

Vivian Anthony is secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference

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