An anxious appraisal;Books

30th June 1995 at 01:00
SCHOOL INSPECTION. Edited by Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon Pitman pound;17.50 - 0 273 61681 1

Martin Lightfoot welcomes a discussion of the broader problems of inspection.

If you ignore inspection these days you are either immoderately covetous of sanity or bent on ignoring reality. Good, then, that it is still possible to discuss it at what everyone hopes is a formative and experimental stage. Here is a creditable start, concerned not with what colour shirt to wear when your Registered Inspector arrives, but with the larger issues.

At least that is what it promises. Tim Brighouse, chief education officer for Birmingham City Council, and Bob Moon, professor of education at the Open University, have corralled an impressive group of contributors. Only the churlish would fault the range: here are former Her Majesty's Inspectors, researchers and local education authorities.

The dominant note is one of anxiety. Even given its limiting terms of reference, the Office for Standards in Education is still some way from getting it right: too much paper, ambiguity of relationships, insufficient regard for the future well-being of institutions. There is not much optimism about what is in prospect. Carol Taylor Fitz-Gibbon for one can scarcely contain her indignation at the "injustices being piled upon hard-working teachers" and the methodological flaws which supposedly justify them.

Surprising then that there is a marked tendency to regard inspection as an immutable part of accountability. It is surely both tribute to, and blemish on, the record of HMI that the connoisseurship model is still seen as the only viable mitigation for the quantitative trend in OFSTED and central government. Much more might have been made of the reductionism implicit in quantitative approaches and the tendency to build large judgments on increasingly trivial data. The potential for school self-evaluation pops up fleetingly, but peer review and anthropological approaches are not even mentioned. Meanwhile the political scene is regarded simply as a glum reminder of that which cannot be ignored.

Inspection, like any evaluation, alters what is inspected. That this idea should not emerge prominently from a book of this kind is one effect of a compact between the parties: teachers wish model lessons to be taken as characteristic; pupils, whatever their day-to-day complaints, are unwilling to undermine teachers; inspectors are interested in promoting the notion that no one pulls wool over their eyes.

Welcome as it is, this book brings together people from whom one is glad to learn and are interesting to listen to, but who start more questions than they answer. It would have benefited immeasurably from all contributors spending a long weekend together with these pieces as drafts before them.

By now we are used to declining standards of copy-editing. Perhaps, within limits, we can tolerate this - though I am sure HMI will be tickled by the editors' notion that they indulged in "general proletising". More seriously, I would expect a competent editor quietly to deflect Tim Brighouse from inviting "anyone familiar with the nineteenth century's history" to recall its industrialisation. Likewise, John Grey and Brian Wilcox undoubtedly know the difference between "summary" and "summative", but they are not telling.

But, yes, probably every school should have a copy. It is a pity it is not as good as it promises and should have been. It is the product of an enlightened, informed group of people, writing to a loose brief something which they only a bit want to write, against time and for meagre reward.

Which reminds me, about children . . .

Martin Lightfoot is a company director and educational consultant.

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