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Joe grows distant from his public

Lay school inspectors were meant to represent Joe Public and carry the flag for the British amateur tradition. They would be the ones who would cut through the education jargon and speak with and for parents.

That, at least, was the plan when the new inspection system was established five years ago. But as researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University have confirmed, lay inspectors have become increasingly professionalised. Many now see the job as a career, and more than 20 have been training to become registered inspectors who will lead inspection teams.

The question that now arises therefore is what is their real purpose if they are no longer "lay"? David Hustler of MMU, who has tracked the development of the lay inspector initiative for several years, believes it is time for a review.

Hustler's early research suggested that the typical lay inspector was around 51, white, male, self-employedretired, professional and well-qualified. Approximately 1,200 were trained overall and despite a drive to involve more women and ethnic-minority members in inspection there has been little change. The only significant difference is that the average age is now around 54 or 55.

Hustler stresses that many of them have done a good job, but he says that there is growing evidence that they are less likely to ask the unexpected question and to inject fresh insights into the inspection process. Some registered inspectors have begun bemoaning the fact that "lay inspectors have become embedded in the jargon and no longer provide quite the same functions in terms of clarifying communications with parents".

And a few are finding that very experienced lay inspectors who have carried out scores of inspections can be difficult to manage. "Some lay inspectors are out to make inspection a career and clearly want to make an impact," one registered inspector told Hustler.

"Some are starting to compare schools, seem to be listening less and writing reports which say what schools should be doing."

Lay inspectors don't necessarily agree with that assessment although one told the MMU researchers: "You are prepared to be more critical and say 'that person is a dud'."

Invariably, their main complaint is that they are side-lined and required to concentrate on a very limited number of inspection areas such as attendance, support and guidance, and pupil welfare and partnership. "Often the aspects that we are looking at are viewed as less important and dealt with rapidly, " one said.

Hustler accepts that they have remained marginal figures despite becoming more professional. But the bigger issue for him is whether the lay inspector role, as currently enacted, has a purpose anymore.

"A review of this role might lead us back into asking how best parents and a school's local community might play a fuller part in inspection," he concludes.

"The OFSTED lay inspector: to what purpose?", by David Hustler, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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