Close but not too cosy for comfort

11th December 1998 at 00:00
Biddy Passmore meets Susan Lewis, Chris Woodhead's alter ego, who is at the helm of the Welsh version of OFSTED

NOT ALL chief inspectors are the same. They are not all tall, curly-haired, bespectacled and with a taste for public confrontation.

Susan Lewis, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools in Wales, is of modest size, has short, straight, grey hair and no specs. When she smiles it transforms her face but she smiles rarely. When she has given a speech, she thanks the audience for their time. And she won't have taken too much of their time. At a recent conference, she single-handedly got the programme back on the rails when it had been running more than 15 minutes late.

Nor will she have held her audience spellbound: rousing oratory is not her style. However, she won't make enemies by plucking estimates of the number of incompetent teachers out of the air. And she runs an inspection service that is, by some accounts, less punitive than its English counterpart.

"She certainly never says anything to offend - rather the contrary," says one Welsh director of education. "She's probably been chosen as a very safe pair of hands for a period of transition."

Miss Lewis, who took over as chief inspector from the popular Roy James in February last year, has her safe hands very full. As well as running the contracted-out inspections of individual schools (just finished the first round of secondary, the first round of primary and special will end next year), there is a host of focused surveys under way. The Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector - the rather clumsy title for the Welsh inspectorate - is already responsible for keeping tabs on everything from nursery to adult education, from voluntary youth agencies to initial teacher training - and will, from next April, be inspecting work-based training and the careers service too.

It's a good way, she says, of bringing parity of esteem to all parts of the education service. But it also means that she and her team of 36 inspectors have a colossal workload. (She is busy building up the inspectors' strength again. Total numbers stood at 59 in 1992 but had fallen by half by 1997 because of spending cuts.) They have published 10 reports since September and have another 26 in the offing. In addition, they keep in close touch with each of the 22 local education authorities, themselves only 18 months old and some still struggling with staffing gaps. These close links, she says, explain why very few of the schools inspected so far have required special measures (they don't talk about failing in Wales): one secondary and five primaries since 1993.

She writes to every head after an inspection asking for an action plan, and her inspectors keep in close touch afterwards. "We don't just walk in and write a report and wash our hands of it," she says pointedly. Anne Hovey, of the National Union of Head Teachers, says the follow-up for schools with difficulties is "by and large supportive and sensitive".

As in England, there are complaints about inconsistent judgments by the independent inspectors. Any complaints that reach Miss Lewis she deals with herself: "Every single one is followed up in forensic detail by me."

Many inspectors work long hours and take work home - a hangover from their teaching days. She gets in by 7.30 am "but by 5.30 or 6 o'clock I've had enough". Her main relaxation is gardening which combines her love of the practical with her love of plants and some exercise.

The daughter of a Welsh father and English mother, Susan Lewis grew up in County Durham. She went to school in Hartlepool, studied botany at Newcastle University and took her Dip Ed at Sheffield. She taught science for 16 years in comprehensives in the old West Riding, Kirklees and Sheffield, rising through the ranks to acting head, and moved to Wales when she was offered an inspector's post there in 1986. She became a staff inspector in 1990.

In the Welsh inspectorate, she learnt to be flexible. "You can't say, I'm a specialist in secondary science," she says. "You have to look at nursery and primary and further education too." She has even been dragged into inspecting floristry in FE colleges ("You studied botany, didn't you?").

In the comradely world of Welsh education, where all the partners are on first-name terms, Miss Lewis's manner can seem a little stiff. One leading figure complained to The TES that she was failing to give any public profile to the inspectorate, to articulate an independent line as her predecessor did.

The system she operates is, broadly speaking, the same as OFSTED's, with regular inspections by teams of independent inspectors trained by HMI. But many would like to seize the opportunity offered by the Welsh Assembly to introduce a different system in Wales: one based on self-evaluation by schools monitored by external inspections by HMI.

A working group of heads, governors and directors of education is currently drawing up proposals for change to put to the Welsh Assembly.

Miss Lewis points out that the revised Framework for the Inspection of Schools, used by independent inspectors, includes more emphasis on school self-assessment. But she adds: "I still believe that regular independent inspection of every school is a necessary means of public accountability. In between inspections, schools will want to continue with their self-evaluation. OHMCI aims to help them by continuing our own monitoring of schools in the close but not cosy relationship we are able to have in Wales."

What really cheers her is the feeling that teachers in Wales have now largely got away from the "patronising" view that background determines performance. As a result, some of the schools in the poorest areas are now making the fastest progress.

"It isn't very long ago that I'd go into a school and the teachers would say 'I can't do any better here, with these children from these families'," she says. "I totally reject that: you can't dismiss youngsters because of the background you think they might have. It's the job of schools to take them from where they are and the job of the inspectorate to check up that that's happening."

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