AS the Commission for Health Improvement issued its first very critical reports of hospitals "in need of special measures", its counterpart, the Office for Standards in Education, witnessed the sudden resignation of its chief inspector.
It is a critical time for the National Health Service and for OFSTED's relationship with the teaching profession and with the Government. The resignation has, however, given a breathing space for education to take stock of eight years of "improvement through inspection" regime and to reconsider the nature of its future activities.
It has taken New Labour almost four years to begin to appreciate the extent of demoralisation among teachers - demoralisation created in large part by the depredations of OFSTED and by the derision poured out by its former chief inspector. For most of the 1990s OFSTED was seen by central government as the "cure" or at least the major means of diagnosing the "ills" of the education system which undoubtedly existed to some degree.
Almost 10 years on, at last it is perhaps being seen by some politicians as a major contributory factor to the "disease" affecting teachers and schools and leading to unprecedented levels of stress, alienation and requests for early retirement.
There have been many casualties of the inspection process whose wounds need healing. In particular, individual teachers, especially those in primary schools, have paid a high price for OFSTED in terms of professional anxiety, confusion and personal anguish of a far-reaching kind. Even in the present inspection cycle many feel violated by what they perceive to be an uncaring, outside agency, still operating with a deficit model of teachers and schools and with its own, not their agenda, in mind.
If such teachers are to be retained, re-motivated and re-educated to appreciate the professional benefits that can accrue from a sensitive process of inspection OFSTED will have to care more and criticise less. This will involve more than a change in the public face of OFSTED (though that would be a start). If it is to be seen as working "with" or "alongside" teachers, rather than "against" them, it must drastically reconsider its inspection procedures and protocols. It must take seriously the possibility of the external accreditation of school self-evaluation. It must re-examine the circumstances in which a full inspection is required. It must reconsider the composition of inspection teams to include perhaps a representative from he school being inspected. It will not be able to produce a quick fix; teachers' wounds will take a long time to heal.
Those much-maligned and unloved registered and team inspectors have also been casualties of an insensitive system. "Training" for their demanding roles has been provided too hastily, too superficially and too infrequently. Opportunities for their own professional development have been poor. Many have been treated as "inspection fodder" by both OFSTED and inspection agencies, working to unrealistic deadlines and under great pressure, especially during the first inspection round. The support offered to many of them has been negligible.
Under the circumstances, it is surprising how many have developed into skilled and sensitive inspectors. But if OFSTED is to continue to operate and regulate a system of nationwide inspections, it needs to strengthen and support the expertise of its registered inspectors, perhaps by ending the use of private agencies and employing its most effective inspectors as a permanent cadre operating regionally as part of a national inspection service.
HM inspectors too have been casualties. The expertise they possessed has been largely squandered. The independent judgment for which they were respected has been compromised. Their careful weighing up of evidence has been sacrificed to "soundbite" inspection pronouncements by an all too media-conscious chief inspector. Their talents have been wasted on regulating a system about which they have had many misgivings. The education system needs the insights they can offer. They would be better placed offering independent advice based on inspection within the Department for Education and Employment, leaving the operation and regulation of the cycles of school inspections (if these continue) to registered inspector colleagues within OFSTED.
Lastly, the inspection process itself has been a casualty. The "craft" of school inspection, developed over 150 years up to 1992, was subtle, sophisticated but inevitably subjective to a degree. As a craft, it did not involve working to the kind of "technical pre-specification" at present codified into OFSTED inspection manuals, each of some 130,000 words. It did not claim to be able to "measure" the elusive achievements of teachers or pupils, nor did it seek to provide a "one-size-fits-all" framework.
OFSTED needs to take a long, hard look at its highly codified and prescriptive inspection methodology and monitoring procedures which constrain the activities of skilled inspectors and fail to do justice to the uniqueness of individual schools.
Colin Richards is professor of education at St Martin's
College in Cumbria