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Mixed feelings

Janet Ouston, Brian Fidler and Peter Earley report their research on how inspection affects schools' performance

Many schools find OFSTED inspection makes a valuable contribution to their development, our research suggests. And there are signs that inspections may have particular impact in schools which received bad or mixed reports.

Over the last two years, we surveyed all English secondary schools inspected in the autumn terms of 1993 and 1994. We put our questions to schools two terms after the inspection - in the summers of 1994 and 1995 - to ensure that post-inspection action planning was completed. The response to both surveys was good (about 60 per cent) and a similar range of schools responded to each.

Schools inspected in 1994 found preparing for inspection more valuable to their development than those inspected earlier (48 per cent and 36 per cent), though they found the final report slightly less valuable. In the second survey, two-thirds felt that the report was "fair", 21 per cent that it was too negative and 11 per cent that it was too positive; 20 per cent were "dispirited" and 69 per cent "encouraged". Roughly equal numbers (about a third) said that their development had been slowed down by the inspection or that it had been speeded up.

In the 1994 survey 55 per cent said that the inspectors' key issues for action coincided with their own development plan, compared with 29 per cent in the earlier study, suggesting that inspection is having a major influence on the priorities schools set themselves.

In a third survey last summer we followed up the schools inspected in the autumn term 1993 almost two years later. Again, there was a good response (70 per cent). As might be expected, however, the schools that replied to the follow-up survey had been, on average, slightly more positive about the value of inspection one year earlier and this must be kept in mind when interpreting the data. Thirty-six per cent of schools said that the inspection had a considerable impact on the whole school and a further 39 per cent that it had a moderate impact. Three quarters saw the inspection as positive, and one quarter was mixed about it - only one per cent was negative. The greatest impact was in the schools who reported a mixed or negative report.

Just under half the schools (48 per cent) said that the inspection still played a direct part in the discussions of the senior management team. This was unrelated to whether they perceived the report as positive or negative.

Schools were asked to assess how much progress they had made on implementing the key issues for action. Most progress was reported in the following areas: responsibilities of the senior management team, personal, social and health education and tutorial programmes, health and safety, special educational needs, and linking the school development plan to the budget. Least progress was made in: the corporate act of worship and RE teaching, accommodation, timetabling issues, academic attainment, attendance and punctuality, developing pupil independence and initiative. But even in these areas most schools had made some progress.

A key focus of the research has been how schools resolve the potential clash of priorities between the inspectors' key issues for action and their own development plan. Just over half (56 per cent) reported that they had not been diverted from their development plan.

Of these, three quarters said that their own plan and the inspectors' recommendations had overlapped almost completely, while others worked on the issues that overlapped and left the remainder. In those schools where the inspection did divert them from their development plan, most changed the plan to incorporate the report. In only a minority (15 per cent) did the inspection recommendations take priority over the schools' own existing plans.

Finally schools were asked to report any other long-term effects of inspection. The positive ones included confirmation that it was "a good school". It also provided additional audit information and helped to sharpen the school's development programme. Negative outcomes resulted from a lack of confidence in the accuracy of inspectors' judgments, the stress and demoralisation inspection may create, and the negative impact on the community. For some schools the report "only told them what they knew already". Many schools said that they would have valued more suggestions about how to implement the inspectors' recommendations.

The writers are the authors of OFSTED Inspections: the early experience and Improvement through Inspection? Complementary approaches to school development (both just published by David Fulton)

Key issues for action

The number of these ranged from three to 10, with an average of six. The issues most frequently mentioned, in percentages, were:

* the corporate act of worship 65 * assessment 37 * monitoring and evaluation 30 * teaching and learning styles 29 * school development plans 28 * differentiation 28 * academic achievement 23

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