Critical eye welcome

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Teachers need a chief inspector without a personal agenda who can comment fearlessly on the successes and failures in the classroom, says union leader John Dunford

"IT is of the utmost consequence you should bear in mind that this inspection is not intended as a means of exercising control, but of affording assistance ... the inspector having no power to interfere, and not being instructed to offer any advice or information except where it is invited."

(Instructions to school inspectors, 1840)

Schools are among the most accountable institutions in the country. As major recipients of public funds, they ought to be. However, as General Teaching Council chief executive Carol Adams observed in last week's TES, the present level of accountability is excessive, curbing creativity and using scarce resources. The Office for Standards in Education uses an outdated quality control model, discarded by industry many years ago. What is required is a model in which schools and teachers regard quality assurance as their prime function, the sine qua non of curriculum development, behaviour management and every other aspect of school life.

The threshold assessment process has demonstrated that schools now possess extensive data on their performance, a situation that did not exist when OFSTED was formed in 1992. Good local education authorities provide further benchmarking information. Data-rich institutions do not need to jump through Chris Woodhead's hoops. Heads and governing bodies are developing systems which, if sufficiently rigorous, can do much of the work that is currently done by inspectors. The internal review process can be complemented by external inspection by OFSTED, which should mainly be to validate the school's internal quality assurance systems.

With greater emphasis on quality assurance in schools, much is to be gained if a greater number of school leaders and middle managers serve on inspection teams, contributing knowledge and gaining experience to take back to their schools. If the teams were led by HMI, instead of contracted part-timers, the reliability of external inspection would increase and money would no longer be wasted on the contracting process.

School staff would still feel under pressure to succeed when the inspector calls, but there would be a new balance between pressure and support, asLabour promised when it was in opposition. While ministers must take their share of the blame for the excessive pressure, Chris Woodhead has raised it to an art form. A change in atmosphere will be as important as any change in the method.

What sets the ispectorate apart from other educational commentators is, or should be, the wide evidence base that it acquires in the course of its daily work. What should therefore make the pronouncements of the chief inspector more valuable than the speeches of politicians or teachers' union leaders is that they draw from the first-hand evidence of the observations of experienced inspectors.

The TES described Woodhead's first annual lecture in 1995 as "an entirely fact-free zone ... Second-hand eloquence rather than first-hand evidence is what we must now expect from the chief inspector". And so it has transpired: six years of a personal agenda that has sometimes challenged teachers in areas that required improvement, but which too often has distorted the evidence. Neither governments nor teachers are helped by a chief inspector with a personal agenda - both will be helped by one whose words are based on the comprehensive data built up over thousands of school inspections.

The chief inspector has become too closely associated with government policy and, although we all strive for higher educational standards, we must not accept a situation where chief inspectors are "public watchdogs paid to enforce the political imperative of higher achievements", as stated in last week's TES leader.

The best chief inspectors have always stood between the profession and the government, independent of both and commenting fearlessly on the successes and the shortcomings of classroom practice, school leadership and government policy. Nobody likes criticism of their work, especially if it is carried out under difficult circumstances, but teachers accept what is said by inspectors who have a broad view of current good practice. The profession needs that external, independent, critical eye. So does the Government.

In 1897 one of the great early inspectors, Joshua Fitch, wrote in his biography of Matthew Arnold that the inspector's "first duty is to verify the conditions on which public aid is offered to schools and to assure the department that the nation is obtaining a good equivalent for its outlay. But he is also called upon to visit schools of very different types, to observe carefully the merits and demerits of each, to recognise very varied forms of good work, to place himself in sympathy with teachers and their difficulties, convey suggestions as to methods he has observed elsewhere, and to leave behind him at every school some stimulus to improvement."

Not a bad dictum for a chief inspector 103 years later.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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