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A particularly poor practice

I have experienced two Office for Standards in Education inspections. The first, three years ago, as deputy headteacher and again last week as headteacher of The Highfield School, Letchworth, in Hertfordshire. There was one big difference between the two experiences - the new requirement to report on particularly good or poor teaching.

At Highfield, staff and governors believe in the process of monitoring teachers' performance in the classroom. The senior management team has carried out internal inspections of every subject department. Our children deserve this and any senior management team which is doing its job properly should ensure that its main focus is the quality of teaching and learning.

As staff, we share good practice and work together for continuous improvement. The staff are not complacent and believe in external scrutiny. Our parents and governors rightly make us accountable and Hertfordshire education authority has served the school well in its advisory role.

Staff were confident that the OFSTED inspection process would provide us with the opportunity to recognise and celebrate good practice. I had only one fear. Would the inspectors have time to recognise our strengths and produce areas for development in an accurate report? I had not anticipated the frustration and anger which I would feel about the reporting on particularly good or poor teaching.

This is not sour grapes. A tenth of my staff obtained particularly good teaching standards which we were told was a high proportion. No teacher received the dreaded "poor teacher" assessment. Fortunately for all concerned, the 10 per cent identified by OFSTED are all particularly good teachers.

What makes me and colleagues angry is the superficial, subjective, snapshot process which allows some teachers to be given official recognition for their performance while equally capable teachers have "failed" to be rewarded. The inconsistency of the judgments by individual subject inspectors who interpreted the criteria differently was particularly frustrating.

The OFSTED requirements in the guidance notes mean that teachers are judged particularly good or poor on a minimum lesson observation of only part of three lessons. According to OFSTED, this will provide the headteacher with "valuable management information ... and thus assist in providing a secure basis for further investigation or action". Why would a headteacher want to "investigate" good teaching?

The agenda is clear. The process is designed to provide evidence of poor teaching, not to assist staff development by sharing good practice. It may be a veiled attempt at performance-related pay.

I am proud of the success of my staff in working as one team to provide the best possible education for our students. We value external recognition of our achievements. We were delighted when we won the 1995 Hertfordshire Business Award for Managing Change. We are pleased that OFSTED has also recognised that The Highfield School staff are a "committed" team.

Our unity was potentially threatened by the divisive OFSTED process which undermines all the good work we have done to act as a team. I am deeply disappointed that OFSTED failed to recognise all of the "particularly good" teachers at Highfield. But I am not feeling so wounded as they must be.

My immediate focus must be repairing the damage done to the morale of some excellent teachers who feel the system has let them down. I made it clear to the staff at our post-OFSTED party that I had no intention of revealing who had achieved particularly good teaching awards.

It is a credit to the individuals, who must be feeling very proud of themselves, that they have kept their success private. Who could blame them if they wanted to show off? They appreciate that the sum of the whole is greater than its individual parts.

For those colleagues who are equally good teachers, I reminded them that their colleagues, and most importantly their students, recognised their consistent performance as excellent teachers. But the nagging doubt remains: What does a teacher have to do to achieve a Grade 1 or 2?

Gaynor Cashin is head of The Highfield School, Letchworth.

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