Grades rocketed, but that wasn't good enough

27th July 2001 at 01:00
David Roberts, Earlston's head of English, was warned of the pitfalls of inspectionbut the process still left him disillusioned.

WHEN the school was told an inspection was about to take place, I was slightly surprised at the comments made by colleagues from other schools.

I was told that the inspectors would always find something to criticise (because this "proved" how perceptive, and therefore how skilled, they were); that they would come in with their own agenda (rather than just the official criteria) and that the whole thing was going to be a negative experience. I now know exactly what they mean.

The example I am going to give concerns the attainment level of pupils doing Standard grade English. Every autumn, I produce a breakdown for the department, showing the numbers of candidates achieving Credit, General and Foundation for the session which has just finished, with the equivalent figures for previous years so that we can identify any trend, whether positive or negative.

The number of candidates attaining an overall grade 1 has risen from seven in 1995-96 to 14 in 1997-98, 23 in 1998-99 and 35 in 1999-2000.

Over the same period, the number of Foundation awards has been very small (a total of five in the past five years, and none last year). The number of low General (grade 4) awards has fallen in the same period from 24 to 12.

How was this reported? The official verdict (and that is exactly what it is) in the Attainment section is "fair". In other words, if you improve your grades generally and increase the number of top grades by 500 per cent over a four-year period, then you haven't done enough.

Yet "fair" will remain as the current verdict until the next inspection (which may be years away) unless it is changed. It's not difficult to imagine the effect of this kind of verdict on staff. The issue raises important questions.

If the report can get it so wrong when the facts are this obvious, how much reliance can we place on what the report says about other aspects of the school? And if we can't rely on what inspectors say about this school, how can any reliance be placed on what they say about any school?

Are the current inspectors in the best position to judge schools? Obviously, the answer is yes, because that is their function. The real question is about what we should be looking for in inspectors. It seems to me that those who are judging the competence of staff and the quality of courses need to have relevant experience so that they really can understand the difficulties of piloting Higher Still courses, managing a mixed-ability class and keeping the photocopying bill within bounds.

When you consider the main curriculum components, it is obvious what relevant actually has to mean.

* The S1-S2 curriculum (5-14) dates from around 1991.

* The S3-S4 Standard grade dates from 1979 onwards.

* Revised Higher and Revised CSYS date from around 1992.

* Higher Still and Advanced Higher are now being phased in.

This means that anyone who left teaching to join the inspectorate before 1979 is almost guaranteed to have no practical experience of teaching any of the courses the inspection will be commenting on.

Most inspectors have probably taught several of these courses but have significant gaps in their experience which may well have to be plugged with the latest official theory in order that the inspectors feel safe in the company of teachers.

It it any wonder that they get it badly wrong sometimes? If you want to see what happens when inspectors become too far removed from the classroom, you only have to look at the infant Higher Still ( though they will probably deny parentage), currently undergoing yet another major organ transplant.

The process of inspection has the potential to be invaluable. However, this will only happen when people with the right skills and experience come in with the right attitude. Good classroom teachers with experience of current courses would be well equipped to comment fairly on course structure, delivery of lessons, classroom management.

As a bonus, they would be well placed to give practical advice too. Why not have some short-term secondments lasting two to three years: that way the people actually carrying out the inspection would know the courses.

On their return to the classroom, schools would in turn benefit from what they learnt about standards and approaches. A short-term post such as this would be seen as valuable experience in a teaching career, not a step away from teaching into something completely different.

At the moment the inspectorate appears to be not just detached from teaching, but altogether remote and unaccountable.

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