"The question of checking the standards of comparability of inspection needs more thought," said Professor Michael Barber of Keele University, who, with Paul Fuller of the consultancy firm Touche Ross, validated the findings. "We said to the Office for Standards in Education that they needed to check the judgments of inspectors against some notion of value-added evidence." It should also be possible to check over time whether a particular team was excessively generous or stringent.
The criticism of blandness flies in the face of early fears that inspectors would be too harsh. "The market pressure not to find a school failing is quite high," said Professor Barber, since it means more work for the same money. The report also shows that those complaining about the behaviour of inspectors and their qualifications to inspect primary and nursery schools are in the minority. Three-quarters of the first 100 primary, nursery and special schools inspected are "broadly satisfied with the inspection process", says the OFSTED report, published this week. "Many staff and governors refer to its rigour and thoroughness, but a number also express reservations about particular aspects of the process."
In an introduction, Professor Barber and Mr Fuller say there was "a high degree of professionalism among all those involved", but warn that questionnaires about customer satisfaction are inherently limited, since "there is a strong correlation between those who are satisfied with the process and those who received a positive inspection report".
New advice for inspectors and plans to revise the inspection framework have taken on board many of the concerns expressed by schools, but the review raises more fundamental questions.
In the longer term, says Professor Barber, "you might wonder whether the system of privatised inspection teams will always be subject to some market pressure." As long as that system is in place, there is a need to have ways of monitoring the quality of the inspections, and consistency of judgment among teams, he says.
An OFSTED spokeswoman said: "We would love to be able to monitor every registered inspector (the team leader), but we haven't got the resources. " However, every written report was monitored, she said. "Ideally, what we would like to do is inspect every single inspection and look at the written report. "
Last summer, as the four-year cycle during which all 20,000 primary schools had to be inspected was set to begin, OFSTED had still not found inspectors for about a third of the schools scheduled for the first term. It had to reduce its targets for 1994-95 and hundreds of inspections had to be rescheduled. HM inspectors were brought in to fill in some of the gaps. By the end of this academic year, 2,400 primary schools will have been inspected, out of an original target of about 3,600, according to OFSTED.
However, it said the inspection market is picking up. A total of 1,620 primary inspections have already been arranged for the next academic year, whereas by early August 1994, only 726 schools had been placed. Two hundred temporary "additional inspectors" have been seconded next term from the ranks of primary heads and deputies, and it is hoped they will be leading inspections by late autumn.
Whatever the problems with finding inspectors last year, most of those going through the process benefited. In this week's report, Inspection Quality 19941995, Professor Barber and Mr Fuller say: "It seems already that 'improvement through inspection' is not just a slogan but a description of an emerging reality." But they continue: "The more difficult question is whether the present process maximises the improvement that might result from inspection."
For instance, there was more evidence of improvement before the inspection, as schools strove to prepare for this trial, than after it. "The evidence of improvement as a result of inspection is less convincing, partly because it is still too early to gather definitive data," Professor Barber and Mr Fuller say.
This finding was one reason Professor Barber, a key adviser to Labour education spokesman David Blunkett, has promoted the idea of self-review by schools as a central part of the inspection system, freeing more resources for failing and struggling schools.
Inspection Quality 19941995 is available free from OFSTED Publications Centre, PO Box 6927, London E3 3NZ.
Case study: Bonneville infants
Bonneville infants school in inner-London Lambeth, joined three-quarters of the survey schools in being "broadly satisfied". The inspection team, who praised the school, followed the guidelines, had suitable qualifications and there were no problems with their conduct, said headteacher Helen Cliff.
To prepare for the inspection, the school held a pre-OFSTED day with a local authority adviser, to give them "a view from the outside in", and decided not to worry about ensuring every policy statement and document was perfect. "They're less interested in pieces of paper than in quality of teaching and learning". They have now incorporated the inspectors' advice into their school development plan. "We felt that what was reported on us was reasonable and has provided us with a good basis for moving on," said Ms Cliff.
She felt it was vital to have published reports on good inner-city schools as it helped to dispel the myth that such schools were more likely to be failing.
Case study: Newton first school
Staff at Newtown first and nursery school in Buckinghamshire found their inspectors, a team from the county council, supportive and helpful, and were pleased that the members were all primary-trained. "I would have been concerned if not," said headteacher Penny Joyce of the March visit.
She also felt it was important that the inspectors had worked together before. Some ad hoc teams do not know each other before the inspection. The lay inspector was "excellent".
However, as a small school, they were overwhelmed by inspectors - six inspectors for seven classes and a nursery. "As one person left, another could be going into the classroom," said Miss Joyce. "Although our inspectors were very sensitive, it's hard."
Another problem was the need to find the bad to balance the good in the report - "the way they have to put a strength and then follow it almost like a sting in the tail with a weakness".