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An inspector leaves with glowing report

Mike Tomlinson's short but sweet stint as chief at the Office for Standards in Education is nearly over, but how much have things really changed? Phil Revell reports

The new broom at the Office for Standards in Education is moving on next month after sweeping for just over a year.

Mike Tomlinson has been popular with heads, and that is not just in comparison with his predecessor. Determinedly upbeat, he demonstrated a welcome willingness to celebrate teacher achievements.

At a recent Birmingham conference he ticked off the statistics from his annual report and told his audience: "I can't think of a single body of people who could point to that kind of improvement."

Highlighting the 40 per cent of teaching that OFSTED found to be excellent or very good, Tomlinson said: "I'd love to think that was true of British business."

So the atmosphere in OFSTED's Southampton Row HQ is noticeably less chilly. But is this being reflected in the trenches, where harassed heads come face to face with inspection teams? Schools inspected in the past six months told The TES that they still had concerns about the process.

Mr Tomlinson told the education parliamentary select committee that he believed inspection had to be carried out in partnership with schools. But is that just wishful thinking?

"Our inspector used the phrase 'inspection in partnership' in his briefing," said John West, head of Henley-In-Arden school in Warwickshire. "But in reality it was done to us, not with us. It was very stressful on staff."

Fran Story, head of Redhouse JMI school in Aldridge, Walsall, has experienced two inspections in three years. "It was different this time because I was asked more inclusive questions, where I was able to give more open answers," she said. But her staff were left exhausted by the process, which seemed to move at high speed, leaving little time for feedback.

"Inspectors spent little quality time with staff," said Ms Story. "They would be scheduled to spend 15 or 20 minutes with a teacher giving feedback, but they would say, 'I'm running behind, can we do this quickly?'

The teacher would get a few minutes of closed, targeted questioning - and when the written report arrived the text was based around that."

Ms Story made a formal complaint and has just received OFSTED's reply. "The general tone was that they were sorry that we were unhappy but they are not going to do anything about it. If I had the time and the energy I would reply, but I am inclined to put the whole thing behind me."

Redhouse was given a positive report so it is not the findings that Ms Story takes issue with, but the process. "They were telling us things we knew already, but in a tone that implied we were incapable of seeing these things without their help."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, recognises the problem. "The overall situation is much better," he says, "partly due to the changed climate at OFSTED HQ.

"But there is still too wide a range of standards in inspection and that gives cause for concern."

SHA would like to see a full-time HMI leading each inspection team, but that was not in the list of reforms approved by Mike Tomlinson earlier this year (see box). Neither was school self-evaluation, the model pioneered by Professor John MacBeath of Cambridge University.

It is rumoured that both Mr Tomlinson and his successor David Bell are fans of school self-evaluation, and that Mr Tomlinson would have liked to move further towards it but was held back by the Department for Education and Skills.

In Birmingham he said: "I think we are moving towards accepting that informed professionals are capable of making informed professional judgments."

Whether David Bell can move the department on this issue remains to be seen. But heads such as John West and Fran Story are keen to remind ministers that Chris Woodhead was not the only problem with OFSTED.

"I'm in favour of inspection and accountability," says John West. "But the system is flawed. Our report was excellent, but in terms of the depth of understanding I don't think it represents good value for money.

"It's not a model that encourages openness. As managers we know our school. OFSTED criticised areas which are working well.

"It would be much more constructive to use a self-evaluation model," he added.

phil.revell@ukonline.co.uk

OFSTED - A NEW REGIME

* Every inspection will include one school-selected subject or issue.

* The number of serving teachers and headteachers on inspection teams will be increased.

* Effective schools will be visited once every six years, while others are inspected more frequently depending on their performance.

* Schools just out of special measures or serious weaknesses will be re-inspected after two years.

* Short inspections for most primary and nursery schools, focusing on core issues and a sample of foundation subjects.

* A new model for special schools and pupil-referral units.

OFSTED stopped providing individual teaching grades to teachers and heads from the beginning of January 2002.

Most of the other changes will take effect from September 2003.

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