Audit of war

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Journalists are rather too fond of military metaphors. Newspapers are littered with references to "battles" that are little more than tiffs. Nevertheless, Josephine Gardiner (page 3) is right to portray the Institute of Education's denunciation of the controversial report on the teaching of reading in three London boroughs by OFSTED as something more than a minor dispute. It is an official declaration of hostilities.

Professors Peter Mortimore and Harvey Goldstein will have thought long and hard before publishing their demolition of a document that Chris Woodhead described as "the most important that OFSTED has produced". The chief inspector may not be hugely popular within the teaching profession, but he remains a powerful man. Bodies such as the Institute, which are in the market for OFSTED research contracts, prefer not to incur his displeasure. Relations between the Institute and OFSTED have, however, been icy for some time, so Mortimore and Goldstein may reason that they had little to lose by mounting a frontal attack on a report which, ironically, Mr Woodhead said "deserves to be studied with the utmost care".

The source of the antipathy is not hard to trace. Chris Woodhead angered Mortimore and co. last December by publicly criticising one of their most highly regarded colleagues, Professor Caroline Gipps, in a pamphlet for the right-wing think tank, Politeia. But the chief inspector's recent decision to ask for a re-inspection of the Institute's primary teacher education courses, which had earned the highest marks in the first inspection, was the final straw.

Even so, the Institute's new publication is more than just the latest exchange in a dispute between Mortimore and Woodhead. There is little doubt that Mortimore, Goldstein and many other teacher-educators, feel sorely aggrieved that a study that they regard as quasi-research - the report was based on one-day inspections of 45 schools in Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets - has been used to promote phonics and whole-class teaching and as justification for the introduction of a national curriculum for trainee teachers, and league tables for teacher-education institutions.

The three boroughs, of course, are also unhappy about the OFSTED document, alleging that it became unfairly negative after it was personally edited by Mr Woodhead. The chief inspector has always denied this, arguing that he rewrote the report simply to make it more succinct. But he has not managed to shake off that accusation and he will find it equally difficult to challenge the forensic evidence provided by Mortimore and Goldstein. Their criticisms are extremely damaging, particularly as they come only one week after Professor Chris Day of Nottingham University itemised why last year's OFSTED report on class size had also reached conclusions that could not be justified by the evidence.

Thankfully, OFSTED has indicated that it will be more circumspect about the way it conducts, and reports on, surveys in future. The report that emerges from the maths study that inspectors are carrying out in Newham, Greenwich and Knowsley will highlight good practice and include pupil background data to help contextualise their findings. But there are no explanations as to why this has not always been done in the past.

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