One of the most hotly debated issues on the lay inspector training course I attended three years ago was whether we would learn so much about schools that we would cease to be "lay". OFSTED recently decided that this was not a problem by announcing an end to the training of any new lay inspectors. It has also floated the idea of lay inspectors becoming registered inspectors, who, by definition, could then lead a team.
After having carried out 20 inspections, I can now draw some conclusions about this subject. I have never been a teacher - I am a lay inspector - but "lay" does not equate with "amateur". I have to be professional in my judgments about all aspects of school life other than standards and progress achieved in particular subjects.
Observing lessons is essential if you are to gather evidence on behaviour, equal opportunities and pupil support. And teacher inspectors are not the only people capable of judging the moral and spiritual, social and cultural opportunities offered in a school.
I am now confident about judging the quality of teaching and the response of pupils in lessons, as well as writing reports in OFSTEDese. I am also perfectly capable of organising the administrative aspects of inspection, from preparing suitable timetables to chairing team meetings.
However, credibility is one of the most important factors in this job. I establish my personal credibility with heads and staff by letting them know I have read their paperwork and by asking questions only about matters that are not clear or have not been covered. The credibility of the team, though, rests with the registered inspector. If I were a teacher, I am sure I would not be thrilled to be inspected by a team led by someone who had not been trained as a teacher.
And how could a lay inspector monitor effectively the quality of work of team members? There is a world of difference between taking on greater administrative tasks in an inspection and becoming ultimately responsible for its conduct and quality.
A lay inspector can do a thoroughly professional job; I am able to maintain a fresh, lay view about education through being a parent and a school governor, without having a separate career. A recent survey by OFSTED on lay inspectors showed them to be not only good value for money, but surprisingly good at the work.
There may be a case for expanding their role in administration; there is certainly a role for them in the inspection of nursery education. But the idea that they should be able to become registered inspectors is, I believe, fatally flawed.
Elizabeth Forster is a lay inspector in Amersham, Buckinghamshire