Gripes from my friend in the North

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
One of my friends in the North has just survived an Office for Standards in Education inspection. His school came through with flying colours - or at least well above half-mast - and he told me how much he regrets that specially commended teachers will not be mentioned by name in the final report. So he thinks that he can claim to make an objective judgment about what happens when inspectors call. His first complaint concerns the weeks before their arrival.

"We did not," he says - speaking as a member of the National Service generation - "whitewash the coke. But we did clean all the graffiti off the walls. All in all, it disrupted about three weeks' work." However, he felt certain that the inspectors had spent even longer on their preparation. The school saw what was described as a "pre-inspection commentary". It referred to "strong features" and "effective action" - which all the staff thought an accurate description of what went on. It also mentioned "established weakness", a passage which everybody agreed was the product of ignorance or malice.

The written assessment was less disturbing than the accompanying tables of figures which the inspectors brought with them. They arrived at the school armed with pages of statistics about its performance over the previous five years. The tables compared the results with those of neighbouring schools. The inspection, says my friend, "was comparative. Unfortunately the comparison was based on inadequate information".

His greatest gripe was against the way in which deprivation was calculated - and one school's social composition compared with another. The criteria of disadvantage was the number of pupils eligible for free school meals. And schools in his area were "banded" accordingly. Unfortunately 35 per cent was adjudged to be the depth of disadvantage. In my friend's school more than half the children are entitled to eat free and he claims that, a couple of miles away, the total is as high as 60 per cent.

He insists that there is a crucial difference between schools with one third and two thirds of their pupils living in poverty. And he thinks that, if comparisons (that is to say contrasts) are made, the difference should be taken into account. It could, he says, be easily done.

My friend, being a practical man, had particular criticism to make of the examination of "pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development". He had no difficulty with "respect for their own and other cultural traditions" or "principles which distinguish right from wrong". But he did have doubts about "spiritual awareness". His views were slightly influenced by one inspector who asked him what he was doing to encourage "awe and wonder" - apparently a particular obligation of science teachers. "It is," he said, "difficult enough to teach them about Ohm's Law. If they can't see it, they can't focus on it."

That last criticism is probably a comment on both his age and his subject. But somewhere under his prejudices there lurks a whole series of important but unanswered questions. Chief among them is "what do we hope that inspection will achieve? Is it intended just to identify weaknesses or equally to help in their rectification?" My friend's complaint is that after the inspection, schools are still left to solve too many of their own problems. Unlike a couple of years ago, inspectors can now advise. But they should do more - arguing the schools' case for help with local authorities and the Department for Education and Employment rather than describing where the school has gone wrong and waiting to see what happens. He found the inspectors kind and courteous and sensitive to the difficulties of teaching in the depressed industrial heartland. But he wanted prescription as well as diagnosis - even though his school had been found in comparably good health. He may have got it all wrong. But I would like to hear the contrary argument.

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