Fear not the gradings

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Summer holidays loom for most teachers, but no one should be getting too overheated about the revelation this week that the Office for Standards in Education plans to give reports to heads on all teachers they inspect based on a new three-point scale (page 5). For a start this is only likely to happen in most schools once every six years. Second, it is by no means clear whether its intention is to put the skids under incompetent teachers, complacent heads or inspectors who are reluctant to hand teachers the black spot.

As far as teachers are concerned, OFSTED itself has made it abundantly clear that jobs will not be at risk solely as a result of such gradings, which inspectors will not have to justify to teachers as they do at present when naming an especially good or poor teacher. The stated intention is to provide heads with further management information. But there must be doubts about the admissibility of such reports in any subsequent dismissal hearing if the teacher is not to be given an opportunity to cross-examine the inspector who made it.

Of course, teachers doing a good job have nothing to fear. And none should be in for any unwelcome shock from inspection if their senior management team is effective in its monitoring and evaluation of classroom standards and appraisal of teacher performance. As the chief inspector has pointed out in successive annual reports, however, many schools are lacking in these respects. The prospect of reports on all teachers' performance may well make them take staff development more seriously.

Individual teacher gradings may be confidential to the head - if only because the governors must remain impartial in any subsequent dismissal hearing - but governors should certainly expect to know the numbers of good, satisfactory and unsatisfactory teachers as an indicator of the school management's performance.

Whether inspectors will be any less reluctant than at present to label teachers "unsatisfactory" if the band width in that category is greater remains to be seen. The chief inspector chides them for craven refusal to confront bad teaching. But such reluctance is understandable given their necessarily limited classroom observations and their need at present to justify their judgment to all concerned. Only the preternaturally inept cannot put up some pretence of competence for at least one lesson and the inspectors' national association have made it abundantly clear that they see reporting on individual teachers as a diversion from the real purpose of inspecting school management.

The new hit-and-run system might bring OFSTED's scoring rate up to the target declared by the team captain. But the risk is that broader categories more cavalierly awarded will simply diminish the quality of any information the gradings could possibly provide.

There is a progressive principle underlying the new three-point scale, however. It acknowledges that anything less than good teaching is not good enough. Why should any child have to make do with lessons that are merely satisfactory, let alone less than. Why should any teacher have to suffer the consequences of lackadaisical or incompetent colleagues?

But the chief inspectors' unremitting emphasis on failing more teachers runs counter to the more pressing imperative: the recognition that almost all schools and teachers are capable - and in need - of improvement. Yes, of course, some need it more than others or more urgently. And if insufficient progress is demonstrated then drastic action should follow without delay - certainly without having to wait up to six years for a school's next inspection to come around. But Chris Woodhead speaks as if there are legions of good honours graduate queuing up to replace the less effective in those areas which find it most difficult to recruit teachers. There are not and he bears some of the responsibility for that.

If Labour's new beginning in education is to succeed, if the ambition of the White Paper to raise standards all round is to be achieved, it needs a real head of professional steam behind the idea not just of school improvement but teacher improvement. Most teachers would have no difficulty accepting these imperatives, overcoming complacency and making the commitment. Most joined the profession to enrich children's lives, not to see them impoverished as many are forced to do daily. Most recognise the need to give the young new hope and the nation a new investment in its human capital.

Teachers need to be inspired and led, not driven by fear of the sack. Given real support, constructive appraisal and appropriate professional development, most teachers know they could and would do a better job and raise their own morale. Then they would need have no fear of inspection.

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