'Why Ofsted inspectors should learn to violate the rules of inspection'

1st November 2014 at 07:00

Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary-sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:

Despite the fact that every school in England has been inspected more than once since 1992, there remains a great deal of misunderstanding about what inspection involves and about the limitations of the process.

Inspection is not just about observing, collecting evidence and reporting it. Inspectors are not like mindless cameras simply providing snapshots of schools and classrooms. They have to interpret, not just report, a wide range of complex, value-laden activities. In particular, that interpretation involves making judgements, not measurements or descriptions. By their very nature, judgments require expertise and an element of discretion in their application; they cannot simply be applied automatically from a handbook or a check-list. Inevitably, they are never definitive; equally inevitably, they can be fallible – as can the people making them or receiving them.

A parallel can be drawn with textual or literary criticism. When analysing the judgments required of a skilled textual critic, the poet A E Houseman argued provocatively: “A man who never violates the laws of criticism is no critic. The laws of criticism are nothing but a string of generalisations, necessarily inaccurate, which have been framed by the benevolent for the guidance, the support and the restraint, of three classes of persons. They are leading strings for infants, they are crutches for cripples and they are strait-waistcoats for maniacs.”

Adapting these comments to school inspection, an inspector who never deviates from the inspection handbook is no real inspector. Inspection guidance should be seen as “nothing but a string of generalisations”, necessarily subject to interpretation and necessarily tentative in their application. Such documentation should be there to support and guide those inspecting and those being inspected. They should facilitate judgment, rather than unduly constrain it. However, where they are misunderstood and seen as precise directions and instructions to be applied inflexibly, they become straitjackets.

Hopefully such misunderstanding will become rarer as Ofsted’s proposed reforms come into effect.  

Related links

Colin Richards: 'What might a reformed Ofsted look like?'

Teachers asked to 'inspect' Ofsted

Ofsted to investigate how schools cope with immigration


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