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No benefits from scrapping inspections

Few people like to be inspected. Not surprisingly, as more and more schools in England and Wales experience the new system of regular inspections, the rumblings against it grow louder; the surfaced with a vengeance at the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Governors, too, are at the receiving end of the new system. But they, more than anyone, should beware of joining those who are trying to rubbish it. Effective and confident professionals should not go into a tizzy at the prospect of being inspected. If they do, this says more about them than about the inspections.

Nor need the extra work caused by an inspection be detrimental to what the school does for its pupils from day to day. A good school tries continually to improve its performance through self-evaluation. If it does that, organising itself for an inspection is relatively straightforward; if it does not, the inspection obliges governors and staff to do what they should have done long ago.

The case for an effective national system of school inspection does not rest only on the powerful argument that those to whom schools are accountable need to know how that accountability is being fulfilled. The case rests also on the need for the school's managers, notably the governors, to be helped in their difficult but vital duty of monitoring the school's performance. Governors need an independent external assessment of their school's strengths and weaknesses to complement, or perhaps to contradict, the assessment they have made from their own observations and the reports of the head.

But the value of inspections is diminished if their main purpose is to identify and castigate shortcomings, and if their follow-up gives disproportionate attention to schools which are judged to be performing badly. On the latter issue, the critics have a point. Schools which are not judged to be at risk of "failing" need to act on inspection findings no less than those that are, and also need encouragement and help. Government policy should enable governors and staff to see that inspections are intended to help all schools get better, not just to sort out the worst ones.

Governors should not, however, go along with the suggestion that the inspection system should be scrapped so that the resources devoted to it can go towards helping and advising schools. More resources for schools are indeed needed, including help and advice. For example, the Government should now accept that taking away so much of LEAs' ability to advise and inspect has damaged many schools. But the public would not believe that every school that needs advice will acknowledge this need and meet it unprompted.

And the public would be right. In a school system committed to raising standards, governors and staff need both the discipline of external inspection and the help and advice that will maximise the benefit that inspection can confer.

Hadrian Southorn is chairman of the National Association of Governors and Managers.

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