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In praise of inspection;Briefing;Governors

Governor Keith Ross wants to set the record straight - inspections are good for schools and their managers. Hilary Wilce reports

School governor Keith Ross would like to hear it for the Office for Standards in Education. He's sick of seeing the inspection service being savaged by critics, and wants to stand up and be counted as someone who thinks it does a good job, offers governors invaluable information, and is, in his experience, directly instrumental in helping schools to raise standards and do their work better.

"The great advantage is the openness of the system, the picture it gives to governors and parents of the strengths and weaknesses of a school and the agenda it sets for change. After an inspection, the governors can start to talk about how a school can be improved. They can address issues they perhaps haven't felt able to previously. They can ask far more penetrating questions than they could have done before, because they've got the information to do it with, and they know much more about how their school compares to similar ones."

Cynics could say this view is biased, since Keith Ross, a semi-retired businessman, is not only a school governor, but also a lay inspector. He counters that this twin role has given him a rare insight into the inspection process, and has allowed him to fulfil his role as governor with greater skill than before.

"It's a real privilege to be able to go into schools like this. It's given me a very different viewpoint, and I've been able to bring a lot more information to the job of being a governor."

He is a governor at two Stockport schools. He has just completed eight years at Priestnall school, a large comprehensive and served five at Cheadle Heath junior school. As an inspector he has clocked up 44 inspections, "and there's hardly a school I've been in where the teachers haven't said I and the other inspectors would be welcome back any time," he said "Both the schools I've been a governor of have been inspected, and there's been no quarrel with the final report, although perhaps there's been a quibble or two about the process. But the reports have given us much more ammunition, and they've opened the way for discussions about how things can be improved. In the comprehensive's GCSE results A to C went up by about 10 per cent the following year.

"There is a definite relationship between the inspection, and the action plan that follows it. Inspection allows us to fulfil our role as 'critical friends' much more easily."

In the past, he says, although schools were inspected, "it was all very vague. There seemed to be a secrecy about it. There was the kind of climate where the teachers, the professionals, tended to talk down to those of us who were outsiders, and heads could be very skilful about talking around a subject without actually addressing the issues. There certainly wasn't the same culture of openness and raising standards."

But today's inspections allow everyone to know where a school stands and what is being done to address any problems thrown up.

It also allows for comparisons with other schools with similar intakes and leaves no hiding place for schools like one he inspected where only 6 per cent of pupils got five good GCSEs, when other schools with a similar intake had "at least 14 per cent, if not more".

However, he concedes that the inspection process is not without problems, not least the stressful lead-up time, now being reduced. "Although you do sometimes wonder to what extent they bring it on themselves. If you go into a school to do an inspection and there's a whole sheaf of policies all dated three to six months before, it's not hard to see that they've thought, 'Oh hell, we'll have to get on with all this stuff we haven't got around to it before'."

Inspection, he also acknowledges, can toss some intractable problems in governors' laps.

"If the inspectors criticise the management, or if they suggest that a school is not giving value for money these, in my experience, are the hot potatoes that can be very, very hard to handle."

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