Snap inspections are misleading

Kay Smith and Neil Munro report on research that suggests pupils might know their teachers better than the inspectors do.

The latest European research suggests traditional school inspections provide a partial picture of schools at best, and a distorted picture at worst, an Edinburgh conference heard last week.

John MacBeath, head of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, who has worked closely with the HMI audit unit over many years cited research he and others carried out for the European Commission, and reported in the study Evaluating Quality in School Education.

Addressing the annual conference of Scotland's educational psychologists, Professor Mac-Beath highlighted the approach used by a school in Germany where one teacher was weighed up by pupils in seven different classes.

This showed how results could fluctuate and emphasised the importance of taking pupils' views into account. "It was illuminating how the qualities of a teacher are contextualised and how results can depend on time, class and place," Professor MacBeath said.

This challenged the reliance on the "snapshot" inspections carried out by Ofsted in England, where classroom lessons are evaluated on the basis of a 15-minute observation. The result was "a totally distorted picture," he argued.

By contrast Douglas Olser, the head of the inspectorate, said recently that HMI had unrivalled evidence about the state of schools which set "often tendentious research projects in their context." He added that inspectors had spent 5500 days in schools last year.

Professor MacBeath said later that Scottish inspections were more extensive but still offered "a partial view". He acknowledged that schools must be subject to external inspection as well as internal evaluation.

Professor MacBeath said that a number of schools in Scotland were already European leaders in encouraging pupils as young as five to take part in evaluations. At the other end of the spectrum, however, "there are schools which have not grasped the nettle and think the process is tedious and onerous."

The need for schools to have a "critical friend" was often overlooked, Professor MacBeath added. He believed only the most self-confident and self-assured schools can be totally self-evaluating. "Schools therefore need critical friends such as educational psychologists who could contribute their knowledge and language and who could work with teachers on suitable methodology," he said.

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