Brickbats aside, new inspections are better

11th August 2006 at 01:00
Ofsted's new self-evaluation regime enables schools to show what they can do, argues Tony Thornley

The new inspection system is a year old. I've experienced some of its highs and lows: the early starts and long days, inspectors meeting like strangers playing sardines in tiny offices, brilliant pupils and brilliant teachers, awkward interviews, with tricky and tense feedback thrown in for good (or special) measure.

You'll have twigged that I'm not a long-suffering teacher or head for whom inspection is an intermittent, if high-stakes, experience. I'm one of that much pilloried breed, Ofsted additional inspectors, who do this for at least part of a living. I don't mind the brickbats and I enjoyed the late maestro Ted Wragg's clever lampooning. But I am a little tired of the persistent criticism which the new inspections have attracted: positive inspection experiences don't make headlines.

What sort of report does Ofsted deserve? Let's take the assessment of pupils' achievements first. While value-added information has been widely criticised, it is much better than the Performance andAssessment (Panda) grades which preceded it. Have we forgotten how a few parents registering for free school meals could move a Panda grade from one end of the scale to the other? We now get several years' worth of pupil progress information as well as clear indications of statistical significance.

This is a big step forward, especially when it is augmented by schools who actually know what progress their pupils are making, and by inspectors who look at all the evidence, not just the Panda. Personally, I will never condemn a school on the basis of its Panda performance. Whatever the data looks like, a school should know how well its pupils are doing now, and be able to demonstrate it.

The biggest plus of Section 5 of the Education Act 2005 at its best is that it assesses and develops school leaders. The quality of self-evaluation and the ability to translate it into actions that improve things for pupils really tests leadership skills.

When the school I led was inspected under the previous Section 10 regulations, the inspection more or less went on around me (some of my staff said that was true of the school as well). The report deduced that the school was well led from everything else they saw.

Now, the onus lies much more with the school to show how well it is doing.

As far as possible, I complete my inspections with the schools I visit; inspection is not something inflicted on them. This provides opportunities for dialogue, and learning, on both sides.

This new emphasis has moved many schools' thinking a long way in a short time, although only the best schools have got beyond incessantly weighing the poor pig. In those that have made the leap from monitoring into evaluation and action, learning is evident everywhere. Pupils can tell you what they are doing to improve, teachers talk about pedagogy and seek feedback to improve their performance, heads are lead learners. These schools are a joy to be in.

Of course, things can improve further. We need the best inspectors and we need to ensure they have enough time to do the job properly. Team members need time to prepare for an inspection. At the moment, they get none, although most give freely of their own time.

And all inspection teams should include one member who has headship experience in the relevant sector. None of these things is likely to happen while Ofsted's budget is severely constrained. I can earn more doing things other than inspection and HMI earn significantly less than most secondary heads.

The quality assurance regime also needs more thought. A report I write has to satisfy a lot of predetermined criteria. This prevents ludicrous reports becoming public, but it also tends to suppress flavour and variety. It is rather like schools which still use checklists to judge teaching, rather than looking at learning and asking what it is about the teaching that has enabled pupils to progress. Three-part lessons may have raised the bottom line in teaching, but, please, not at the expense of creativity.

Differentiated inspections are coming, with very light touches for the best schools. This has to be right, but I'd also argue that schools whose indicators over several years are poor, or are spiralling downwards, need more inspection time.

An extra day for each inspector in such schools would give time to assess better where the school is now and its capacity to improve. This would also help to avoid schools being failed on insufficient evidence.

So my end-of-year report is upbeat: "Overall effectiveness is good, with encouraging improvements over the previous framework. Educational provision, especially leadership, is improving as a result of the changes.

Ofsted seeks stakeholders' views and its leaders know the strengths and weaknesses of the new framework.

"Most inspectors are very committed, but they are overstretched and undervalued. There are worrying inconsistencies between inspection teams: in their levels of expertise, in their understanding of data and in their interpretation of criteria. Capacity for improvement is only satisfactory as there are not enough resources to resolve all the weaknesses."

Tony Thornley has written a guidance booklet on Self-evaluation and Inspection which is available from ASCL, 130 Regent Road, Leicester LE1 7PG in return for a donation of pound;20 to ASCL's Sri Lankan school appeal

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