Schools should inspect schools

Neil Ferguson and Peter Earley on research looking into improving the

inspection experience from within.

THE dust had barely settled on the House of Commons select committee's report before the Office for Standards in Education was in the news again.

The suicide of two teachers has been attributed partly to inspection stress and inspectors' damaging comments. This led to calls for reform. Chief inspector Chris Woodhead stated on Radio 4's Today programme that he was always interested to hear of ways in which the process could be made less stressful.

Inspection is a high-stakes game in which a school can be deemed in need of "special measures", showing "serious weaknesses" or simply "coasting". Schools are more than ever open to scrutiny but heads and teachers generally agree that schools should be publicly accountable.

It is probably the presence of inspectors in classrooms that is most stressful for teachers. On the basis of only three or four short periods of observation, judgments are made about the worth of a teacher. Teachers worry about the effect of the judgment on the school and how relationships with colleagues will be affected if a poor performance "lets the side down".

Our own recently-published Nuffield Foundation-funded research argues for changes to make the process less stressful.

We identified a number of limitations of the current system. Many heads are reluctant to act while an inspection is pending. Class teachers are overburdened in the months before an inspection and planned developments are frequently put "on hold". And school improvements were often adversely affected by the "post-inspection blues": six months or more after an inspection when staff felt depressed and exhausted.

These side-effects could be largely overcome by bringing school self evaluation and external inspection closer together. We recommend that inspection should draw more heavily upon the results of self-inspection using the OFSTED criteria alongside external inspection by OFSTED.

Both should be elements of a revised system in which school improvement and public accountability would be distinct and separate activities.

If schools were to take over at least some of OFSTED's functions this would not only reduce stress but also provide an important opportunity for staff to gain insights into their school's strengths and weaknesses. We want to see "self-inspection" as part of the process that leads to the outcomes of an inspection report.

The process would consist of several interconnected activities such as benchmarking, the use of benchmar data, the assessment and recording of pupil progress, attendance and behaviour, and the setting of the school's own targets for self-inspection.

We envisage that a slimmed-down inspection process would require schools to account for their performance, based on the OFSTED criteria. Inspectors should not attempt to observe teaching except for moderation purposes aimed at evaluating the school's quality assurance and improvement processes.

The introduction of light-touch inspections has already recognised that, in good schools, it is not necessary for every teacher to be observed. We need to ask whether observing several 20-minute excerpts from the lessons of every teacher in the school is ever justified.

The fact that these teachers spend weeks and sometimes months planning these lessons, makes the question doubly pertinent and our proposal would ensure that pre-inspection panic and post-inspection blues no longer had such damaging effects on pupils' education.

Mr Woodhead would, no doubt, be concerned that inspectors would have no first-hand knowledge of teacher performance. However, schools would be involved in the regular evaluation of teaching quality and would have to accept responsibility for supporting, developing, retraining or, when necessary, disciplining teachers.

This change would refocus attention on teachers' obligation to evaluate their own teaching systematically and take part in peer monitoring and discussions with senior colleagues.

Teachers, we suggest, should maintain a teacher profile in which they record the results of their discussions and of the actions taken to improve the quality of their teaching. OFSTED's role would then include the evaluation of the school's efforts to improve teaching, the quality of the profiles and the moderation of the school's judgments. Regular, systematic and continuous reflection is likely to be more reliable and effective in bringing about improvements.

It is important to maintain the right of a visiting inspection teams to look at any aspect of a school's activity that it believes may require further attention. However, in almost all cases the evidence provided by a self-inspecting school will mean that inspections can be much shorter, involve fewer inspectors, cost much less, be less stressful and cause relatively little disruption to the teaching programme.

It would also be more likely to lead to school improvement.

"Improving Schools and Inspection: The Self-Inspecting School" by Neil Ferguson, Peter Earley, Brian Fidler and Janet Ouston is published by Paul ChapmanSage

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