Calling on the inspectors

19th December 1997 at 00:00
David Blunkett and Stephen Byers have announced their intentions of improving standards across education. Their enthusiasm must be welcomed, especially if it is matched by the resources, training and support that will be needed to reach their objectives.

How, though, will we know if those objectives have been reached? Tests of pupils will provide one indicator; but equally important should be the tests of schools. The Office for Standards in Education system deserves, but does not receive, as much scrutiny as the examination system. In true "physician heal thyself" style, I would like to offer some advice on improving that great measurer of standards: the OFSTED inspection.

My experience of OFSTED is as a parent governor. I have been through two inspections in the course of a few months. In both cases, the schools, deservedly, came out well. The inspectors were, on the whole, high quality, and tried their best not to disrupt school life too much. They warned us in advance that it would be an exhausting process and that the children's behaviour would be affected.

At the end of the inspection we debated with them around the margins of the reports, questioning some of their assumptions and conclusions, but in the main I felt satisfied that the two different teams had treated us fairly and that we had all performed well.

Despite my "positive experiences", I was left uneasy about the process. Parachuting in inspectors who have to make decisions based on a three-and-a-half-day snapshot does not seem the right way to understand how effective a school is. I felt that we had been lucky - by and large there had been no hiccups and the team were helpful and supportive. But luck should play no part in this process. So, as Stephen Byers and Chris Woodhead consider how to improve standards, I offer these proposals for OFSTED.

First, judgments about schools should be made by a process of continuous assessment. Students are increasingly assessed by looking at their work over time - with or without an examination at the end. So too should schools have the benefit of inspectors visiting over time, with perhaps a major assessment at the end. I don't advocate a return to the HMI system, but I do believe inspectors should be required to gain some understanding of the school; the mix of pupils and the staff. It seemed nonsense to me that such dynamic organisations should be treated as if any three days were the same. It made no sense that supply teachers, brought in sometimes at very short notice, should be assessed as if they were the usual class teacher.

Second, there should be greater clarity and continuity about the inspection team. Despite the fact that my two schools are linked - infant and junior - we had two completely different teams who paid no heed to the existence of the other school beyond a passing reference in the report. I would argue that continuity of education between the schools is important, especially to parents, but this was not assessed.

I am also unconvinced that it is the best use of public money to have inspectors coming from different parts of the country when it must be possible to organise teams within each county that have no direct contact with a school but at least some understanding of the environment in which it operates.

Third, there's OFSTED-speak. I found it very difficult to convey to anxious parents that "sound and sometimes good" was a positive statement. It sounded like the shipping forecast. Consistency of language is important for comparison, but only if it is comprehensible. As the system of inspection - different inspectors at different times of year - makes comparison pretty impossible anyway, I vote for language that parents can understand.

Finally, there should be regular inspections of OFSTED by teams of teachers. They should visit OFSTED teams at work, and report on how well they assess a school, the criteria they use and the assumptions they make. They should also look at the training and support that inspectors receive and how reports are handled when finished. Regular published reports, available to all schools, should be a tool to keep OFSTED standards high.

Catherine Ashton is a parent-governor in Hertfordshire

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