Chief inspector stands by use of primary statistics

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Colin Richards and his "anonymous" ex-HMI colleagues allege that I have manipulated inspection data to produce a misleadingly gloomy picture of primary education (TES, April 19). Is this a sensational and damaging assertion worthy of front-page headlines? No, it is another OFSTED storm in the TES teacup. The facts are as follows.

First, if we had wanted to mislead we would not have told the world what we were doing. Page 76 of the annual report sets out the basis upon which we have interpreted the evidence provided by inspection.

Second, the decision to view the mid-point on the scale (a balance of strengths and weaknesses) as meaning "amenable to improvement" was taken collectively by senior HM inspectors. Mr Richards argued his corner and lost. To imply that I was flying in the face of HMI advice is factually wrong and more than a little mischievous.

Third, to argue that I effected the change in order, on the one hand, to assist the Government in the run-up to the next election, and, on the other, to promote a return to the "basics" is absurd.

Your reporters apparently know when the next election is to be. I do not and would find it difficult therefore to ensure that the annual report hits the unsuspecting electorate at the appropriate time. More significantly, as a further point of fact, our approach to interpreting the evidence will not be changed for the next report. Unless, therefore, the evidence allows us to report it, no miraculous improvements in practice will be reported via any statistical sleight of hand.

On the "basics" point, think of all I have said and written in support of the national curriculum. Read, to give the most recent example, Chapter 3 of Michael Barber's The national curriculum: a study in policy.

The only sense in which I am interested in the "basics" is that I believe standards in literacy and numeracy are vitally important. Is anyone arguing otherwise?

Fourth, moving from the accusation that the argument is misleading to the substantive issue of whether there are serious issues in primary education which need to be resolved, any professional discussion of this year's annual report should set my judgments in the context of those made by my predecessors.

In 1989 Eric Bolton highlighted the 30 per cent of poor or very poor lessons as a "stubborn" statistic that ought to be at the forefront of our collective professional attention. My point is exactly this. The HMIOFSTED view has not changed over the past decade. To pretend that it has is a transparent attempt to avoid the message by rubbishing the messenger.

I do not, as your reporter Geraldine Hackett suggests I might, want to dismiss Mr Richard's attack as the revenge of a disgruntled man who was not offered the job he wanted.

Whatever his motivation, he raises significant questions. What are the key issues in primary education? Whatever the achievements of the past few years, what still needs to be done to ensure further progress? And, what in all this, is OFSTED's role?

As I see it, the answer to this last question is that we must tell it how it is. There can never be any question of manipulating the evidence. We must point to the strengths and weaknesses in current practice in a rigorous and dispassionate way. No criticism of our methodology or accusation of political bias will deflect us from this central and profoundly important responsibility.

CHRIS WOODHEAD

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools

Office for Standards in Education

Alexandra House

33 Kingsway

London WC2

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