Face to face with critical inspectors

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Everyone involved with inspection by the Office for Standards in Education will welcome the end to the complexity of the procedures that have been used to single out weak (and good) teachers. These were introduced in 1996 and seem, from most perspectives, to have failed in their purpose. Now lesson grades for all teachers are given to the head after an inspection and shared with the teachers themselves.

At first glance, the new system may be no more welcome than the last. Many teachers will view any new arrangemen t with suspicion. Certainly, teachers have been targeted and blamed.

It would be a pity if this atmosphere led to a failure to use the new procedures in a developmental way. Inspectors have received additional training that stresses the contribution inspection can make to the improvement of schools, and sharing inspection judgments (such as grades for lessons) with those most directly involved represents an openness on the part of OFSTED that invites a positive and optimistic response from teachers and senior managers.

Since September, all teachers are given the grade awarded for the teaching category of their inspection, although there is no reason they should not also ask for the grades on the other categories: standards, progress and pupils' response. It is hard to see why an inspector would not divulge them.

Headteachers are given a summary sheet for the school. This will graphically reveal the identity of a teacher or a subject area where there are perceived to be problems and where there are strengths.

Inspectors are also required to offer oral feedback to all teachers seen in primary, nursery and special schools and pupil referral units, and to "as many teachers as possible" in secondary schools. In addition, any teachers in secondary schools who have taught one or more lessons where the quality was graded at less than satisfactory, must be offered feedback. This session must take place before the end of the formal inspection or as soon as possible afterwards.

In the context of school improvement, teachers need to think how to make the most of this meeting with the inspector. The feedback will be uncompromising - teachers are to be left in no doubt about the strengths and weaknesses of their work.

Inspectors will wish to be as helpful as possible but, given the publicity which the performance of teachers has had recently, those under scrutiny are bound to react defensively to these formal feedback sessions. It is also a tall order for inspectors to give an appropriate amount of time to such sessions when they are also required to gather evidence on which to base judgments about the quality of the work of the school.

Headteachers can help to create a sensible dialogue. One way is to decide, in advance, how to handle the new information that OFSTED is providing. When the headteacher can see in which subjects and with which teacher there was particularly good or poor teaching, what can he or she be expected to do with this information? In a well-run school there should be no surprises in the summary sheets and, where there is unexpectedly good or poor teaching, it is proper to consider how that might have been affected by the circumstances of the inspection. Did the inspector see a well-prepared lesson with well-behaved pupils or a lesson that had been affected by nerves, stress or inappropriate preparation.

While it is important to look closely at any inspection evidence that conflicts with the school's knowledge of a teacher's performance, the information given by the inspection team must be treated as no less, and no more, important and as significant as it really is.

Schools should welcome the fact that the inspection team is now sharing the evidence on which they base their findings. However, it may make less sense for school managers to use this evidence as a way of identifying the poor or the incompetent teachers for support, or the excellent teachers who may receive special praise. It is arguable that the OFSTED data should simply be confirming what the school already knows.

OFSTED inspects the school's systems for monitoring the quality of its work, especially the quality of teaching. Recommendations that schools improve these systems have been a feature of many (if not most) reports over the last few years. And this new approach to management has begun to take hold. Most schools have given some consideration to "opening the classroom doors" and to the role of heads of department and curriculum co-ordinators in monitoring the work of their colleagues. This has not always been an easy practice to develop. Concerns about whether it is inspired by accountability or a wish for development, and about the difference between friendly advice and public judgments have had to be acknowledged.

Where it is beginning to be a force for improvement is in schools where these issues have been faced and not fudged, where there is openness and trust, and where criteria for observation and ways of feeding back to colleagues have been worked out and improved in the school. There is the opportunity for OFSTED judgments to take their place as additional (but not superior) information that helps the drive towards improvement as the school sees it.

If the new protocol works better, than an honest sharing of the inspection team's evidence -perhaps underpinned by the Labour Government's greater respect for teachers - it could be a welcome step forward. The first meetings with the headteacher, with the staff and with individual teachers will be the most important part of establishing an atmosphere in which inspection can benefit pupils and contribute to improving teaching. So, while there may be some way to go to undo the expectations of "shame and blame" associated with OFSTED, the new changes, approached with optimism and confidence, can be a step forward rather than a step back.

* Sheila Russell is president of the National Association of Inspectors and Educational Advisers and Consultants but is writing in a personal capacity. Jim Sweetman's School Improvement Handbook was published by Courseware Publications last month

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