THE stress and strain imposed by inspection was emphasised recently by the suicide of a teacher who appeared to cite inspection as a major contributor to her predicament. It is impossible not to feel huge sympathy for the individual in such a case, whilst at the same time not allowing that sympathy to impede overall judgment. Teachers and schools must be subject to a process of inspection if they are to be regarded as both professional and efficient.
Yet to accept the principle of inspection is not necessarily to accept the process. There is one glaring gap in our present process, and one which makes the system of inspection inherently unfair. This is the absence of any effective method of reporting on the inspectors by those they inspect.
Inspection is a new growth industry in education. As with any new growth, particularly one that carries very significant power, there is always the risk that it becomes an alternative career path for those who fail to make it in promotion terms in mainstream teaching, those with a particular axe to grind or those who place a plausible veneer over their basic incompetence. Recruitment and training procedures can weed most of these out. I choose not to believe any organisation that says it can guarantee that such processes weed out every single weak link. If we all were perfect we would not need inspection in the first place.
So what do you do if your department is inspected by someone who would not last two minutes teaching in a real school, or someone whose judgments seem vindictive, based on a personal agenda or simply bizarre? What do you do if your lead inspector produces a report that damns with faint praise, seems politically motivated or suggests that he or she exercised little real control over their inspection team?
Precious little, is the answer at present. Anyone who complains about a critical inspection report always seems to be bleating and yelping on the basis of sour grapes. In addition, a government which seems obsessed with results and their publication has made huge demands on schools to go public. With a league table for almost everything a notable omission is the league table for inspectors.
Our present inspection system orders schools to do as they say, not as they do. It appears to leave itself out when it comes both to measures of performance, and going public with those same measures.
The answer, rather ironically, lies in the Premier League of soccer. Referees carry huge respnsibility in Premier League soccer games. Not only do they have an observer placed in the stands for every game, reporting back on their performance independently, but they also face a report from both clubs involved in the match. The authority simply becomes answerable to a degree of comment by those on whom it is imposed.
I would like to suggest that we copy that system in a very simple way for inspectors. Each school should be asked to submit a report on each individual inspector and on the Lead Inspector in his or her overall co-ordinating role. That report should be based on a simple numerical score, as is the case in soccer - say on a 0-10 scale with 0 representing a gross lack of professional standards and judgment and 10 representing outstanding professionalism. Along with each ranking a very brief and simple explanation of why that ranking was arrived at would need to be made. That report should go to Chris Woodhead, or his successor.
At the end of each year the figures should be published for each inspector. Inspections direct the full glare of public knowledge on to every aspect of a school's running and management. Fair enough - but equally fair for inspectors to be subject to that same scrutiny.
Under this system the occasional low mark need not have a negative effect on an inspector's career. There will be schools who have received a bad report whose response to the inspectors will inevitably be hostile, and possibly unfairly so. Schools are fallible, as are inspectors. Yet if the ranking awarded to an inspector is spread out over a period of time fairness is guaranteed. It would be unfair for a school to be judged on the basis of one candidate's examination performance. It is far more fair if the judgment is based on hundreds. If over that period of time an inspector receives consistently low marks from the wide range of schools he or she inspected then, if not condemned, there has at least to be a case for that inspector to answer. This is where an open and public procedure for dealing with such inspectors is needed. It could be very similar to that adopted for teachers in a similar predicament - a consultation to assess what, if anything, is wrong, and the setting of clear targets to be achieved within a given time frame if the career of the inspector is to continue.
Slowly, perhaps even grudgingly, schools and teachers are coming to accept that they must be answerable to the wider public who they serve. It is surely not unreasonable to ask the inspection service to adopt the same principle for itself.
Who inspects inspectors?
Friday magazine, 29