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Pity the inspectors

Sylvia Richardson argues that any changes in OFSTED should build on the experience of independent inspections

Who would be an inspector of schools these days? Am I the only one who feels misunderstood? I became an inspector after many years as a teacher and a headteacher. I felt that schools can benefit from an objective professional view of how they are doing, and that some inequalities in the system cannot be dealt with if left only to the insiders. I had as my model the role played for years by Her Majesty's Inspectorate. It is still my model. Since the Office for Standards in Education set up shop, I have become convinced that I was right to throw in my lot with the new system.

The role for inspection is misunderstood, and the risk of the education system being thrown into further paroxysms by this misunderstanding is great. I see inspections as being about identifying schools' strengths and weaknesses and leaving them in a frame of mind to build on the strengths and do something about the weaknesses.

There is no convenient blueprint in teaching or a sure-fire way of making that the basis of every teacher's practice. I believe that I must identify inequality in the experiences children have of teaching.

Professional discussion following analysis of a teacher's work is one way of helping all teachers reduce the inequalities. That sharing can and should be done in an atmosphere of professional trust and respect between headteachers, teachers, governors, inspectors, parents and pupils.

But some teachers and headteachers, deeply mistrust inspections because of the mythology that has grown up about them. They have read arguments from higher education about the importance of research. They have read in The TES letter pages a stream of unfortunate experiences. I have only read one letter recently which had a positive view of a good inspection. Consequently, some teachers believe the experience will not take the school forward.

I can only draw on my experience and that of my colleagues. I believe that all these fears should be groundless. Inspection can even tell schools things they didn't know. Schools hear arguments about advice, inspection and whether local education authorities should conduct their inspections - or not. What is the classroom teacher or the head to make of it? And where do the parents stand in all this? Their main concern must be for the quality of teaching and learning for their children.

The connection between inspection and advice is still not fully understood. One of the reasons why good LEA advisory teachers failed to make an impact on weak practice was because their efforts were not accompanied by rigorous, regular, published inspections, and they lacked the "clout" they needed because their efforts were not part of a cycle of regular review.

The weak practitioner or the weak headteacher could take or leave the advice. The publishing of inspection reports has already had some important effects, not the least of which is to provide an agenda for action for each school inspected and to improve the quality and audience for debate about outcomes. Take away inspections, and this effect may cease to occur.

The inspection process itself is inefficient. OFSTED - operating in a political, commercial and public interest field - has not yet got the balance right between conducting an inspection, in which the tone set will determine whether or not the school gets anything out of the team's presence, and reporting to a mixed audience.

In business, technical reports, company financial statements, and publicity leaflets would emerge from a quality assurance process. OFSTED inspection reports do not take into account the mixed audience.

We should be producing jargon-free public reports which satisfy the parents' need and right to know, professional reports that satisfy the teachers' needs in their search for school improvement and identify strengths and weaknesses, and management papers. These would suggest how to take the school from where it is now to where it needs to be. The revised framework will take us all closer to this as it is more helpful to schools. Sadly, the revision does not go far enough towards recognising the schools' needs for written feedback.

The recent change that has so upset the profession is reporting on individual teachers. The strength of their reactions says a lot about the lack of accountability in school culture. But the way in which the changes have been set up and the haste in implementing them will make the establishment of the working relationship with the school difficult. The likelihood of schools responding well to inspection recommendations may reduce.

The reality is that many registered inspectors, through analysis and discussion, offer schools feedback before, during and after the inspection. This "unofficial" advice benefits the school as much as the official process; some heads will say it is the best in-service training they have had.

Lay inspectors too have said that this is a great benefit of the inspection process. There is OFSTED and independent evidence that such views are widespread but unreported in schools. But changing a culture cannot be done overnight.

Another inefficiency as far as schools are concerned is that the system is founded upon a competitive market in inspection contracts. Schools mistrust this as they see it as being about financial incentives and do not believe in the link with improvement.

Those schools that have had inspections conducted in a "hands-off" method view the operation of the market as unreliable. They are not getting value for money.

If set free to redesign the system, I would try not to harken back to a lost golden age - there never was one for school improvement. I would want to mix and match between the best practice of HMI and LEA teams, remembering that not all LEAs had rigorous systems. I would have to remember that LEA inspectors have also suffered depredations - Government and some local authorities have failed to see the centrality of quality assurance. We may need a "General Inspection Council" to set out the rules and training arrangements.

A system capable as this one is of identifying problems rapidly is valuable. But, because of the framework's insistence on separation of inspection and advice, it loses momentum at the critical point - immediately after the inspection is complete.

Only the stronger schools can exploit the bald inspection findings without losing their way. Yet again we see that the weaker ones are further disadvantaged by virtue of their intrinsic lack of "street-cred". They cannot plot a course into the choppy waters of school improvement without a pilot.

The introduction of lay inspectors has been a success in the schools I have inspected. They bring a valuable range of professional skills; they are good at representing the interests of the community, and at challenging inertia in the schools' systems and the inspection teams' methods.

However the system changes over the next few years, it needs to build on the experience which has been amassed in the past three years by independent inspectors.

While, as with weak teachers, there is a need to improve the practice of those inspectors who do not give schools the guidance they deserve, there is also a need to take advantage of the experience of the good ones. This experience is a national asset which should not lightly be jettisoned, as it has been in the case of HMI.

My postbag, like my reading of The TES, often leaves me feeling deflated about inspection and as insecure about whether I am doing the right thing as any headteacher. My spirits were lifted, however, by the head who wrote to me a few weeks ago and concluded his letter by saying that "a year on, the school continues to reap the benefits of its inspection". Talk of radical review of the inspection cycle is misplaced if any schools reap benefits. Should not the debate be about how the many can gain access to the benefits enjoyed by the few?

Sylvia Richardson is a registered inspector and a consultant in the Cambridgeshire Partnership. She was formerly chief inspector for Cambridgeshire, and has been a comprehensive head in inner London TES MAY 3 1996

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