Don't count on it

8th August 1997 at 01:00
Richard Bain enumerates inspection failings

When I was little, my dad used to delight in playing those games where you thought of a number, added, divided, multiplied and then, lo and behold, you were back with the number you first thought of. I thought it a harmless entertainment, but I have been amused to see its practical application in recent Office for Standards in Education statistics.

The OFSTED inspection system was set up to assess schools, not individual teachers. After early inspections, the chief inspector looked at the number of lessons graded unsatisfactory or poor and extrapolated that there were 15,000 "incompetent" teachers. Many would question his grounds: the fact that a teacher has taught an unsatisfactory lesson does not make him or her incompetent. For example, a good teacher intimidated by the paraphernalia of OFSTED, or a very good teacher courageous enough to take risks despite the smothering and debilitating effects of an inspection - might well teach an unsatisfactory lesson.

None the less, the inspection system was changed to place a greater emphasis on teaching and to identify individual teachers. The new system, now specifically geared to assessing teachers, produced numbers of "incompetent" teachers well below the original extrapolation.

Analysts, with no particular axe to grind, might revise their hypothesis on the basis of more accurate information. But no, the chief inspector concluded that his hypothesis was right, and that OFSTED inspectors are unreliable (yes, these are the same inspectors who produced the original information).

So now he proposes to change the system again, making sure he comes back to the answer he first thought of.

The serious subject of poor teachers should not be the cause of macho posturing or political opportunism. We need to ask questions about how poor teachers are created - and the most effective means of identifying and dealing with them.

So who are the poor teachers?

* once successful men and women who no longer have the stamina to sustain the exhausting treadmill of good teaching and are content just to "get by"

* successful staff who have been overlooked by management and have become cynical and disaffected

* those committed to the needs of children but alienated by the bureaucracy of the national curriculum

* those stuck in the rut of ideas that once worked, but who have been given no guidance or incentive to change

* those who have been left to cope without advice and support

* those working in a hostile and unsupportive ethos

Inspections are not an effective way of identifying or dealing with such problems. Many poor teachers are able to perform satisfactory lessons "to order" and inspectors are unlikely to identify long- term failings in performance or relationships. Besides, better mechanisms already exist to identify, monitor, support and, if necessary, dismiss such teachers. The problems lie in the willingness of governors and managers to institute and follow through the existing procedures.

Their reluctance to act is not helped by the culture of blame epitomised by the chief inspector, nurtured by the previous government and regrettably condoned by the present one. In such a hostile culture, any identification of poor teachers looks like scape-goating. Unions and management, who should have a common cause in sustaining effective teachers, are forced into conflict by an inappropriate system.

Meanwhile OFSTED's new proposals for identifying more "incompetent" teachers will do little to address the real problems of poor teaching but will further demoralise the tens of thousands of able and successful teachers on which our schools rely. If we must play the numbers game, can we start with a different number?

Richard Bain is deputy head of a North Tyneside comprehensive and an OFSTED inspector * Thank God it's Friday returns on September 5

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