Editorial - Estyn strategy offers schools an olive branch

10th July 2009 at 01:00
The new inspection format strikes a balance between accountability and accord

After all the furore in England over plans for a new inspection framework - including the fear of no-notice dawn raids - negotiations for inspection reform in Wales have been remarkably civil. Teachers' unions have been silenced because there is nothing to be negative about in these plans, much of which has been on a wishlist for a long time. The truth is that the inspectorate has managed to strike an admirable balance between providing more public accountability while keeping the teaching profession sweet.

Sun-Tzu, Chinese general and military strategist, said in 400BC: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." And this is precisely what Estyn has done. The inspectorate knew that going in like a bull at a school gate simply would defeat Wales's vision in the classroom.

To make teachers dread inspections by giving a maximum of two days' notice - the time limit in England - would simply be counterproductive to Wales's vision of professional partnership where the learner is centre stage. That's not to say there won't be groans when the inspectors come calling, but isn't that just human nature? No one likes to be placed under scrutiny, but the observation of schools is vital for ensuring public accountability. Schools appreciate this.

By deciding on a four-week notice period, Estyn has got it right, according to Gareth Jones, secretary of the heads' union ASCL Cymru. The notice period is hardly enough time to coach teachers and pupils and cook the books. It is a respectable enough time for schools to adjust to the idea and for the views of parents and pupils to be taken into consideration.

Unlike Ofsted's shock tactics, there won't be any fractured relationships between the inspectorate and the classroom. It seems teachers in England will feel little more than prisoners condemned to a cell search. But in Wales, we will have shorter inspections, like a breath of fresh air for many high-performing and good schools because they are saved the rigmarole of inspection hell.

Many schools will also be jumping for joy at not having invading inspection teams contracted by Estyn - often from outside Wales - causing upheaval. The confidence that will come from Estyn-led inspections cannot be overestimated. It will also save money. New-look Estyn reports will focus on achievements, the best practice to emerge from inspections, which other schools can readily access and follow. But coasting and underperforming schools that come under scrutiny will be supported, hopefully not harassed, into improving.

Estyn's new framework will finally patch up its relations with schools, many of which were less than happy with the old arrangements. OK, all is not perfect in Welsh education, but at least our teachers will be truly trusted in the inspection process. This is a job well done by Estyn, and a victory for those, such as heads' union ASCL Cymru, which have made lighter touch inspections very much part of their campaigning agenda over the past few years.

Nicola Porter, Editor, TES Cymru E nicola.porter@tes.co.uk.

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