That handbook had its points

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Will the new inspection arrangements be more primary-friendly than before?

Bill Laar reports

Were the inspection system to be dispensed with overnight, it is possible that even its most implacable critics might spare a moment to regret the passing of the Handbook. Many would be prepared to acknowledge its efforts to map and provide directions to aspects of curriculum, pedagogy and management hitherto only vaguely charted, the creditable attempts to define criteria for good practice, effective teaching and the forms of management most likely to result in successful schools.

Some observers would go further and would argue, albeit privately, that the kind of agenda for development the Handbook suggested, backed by the inspection process, with its emphasis on pupils' achievement and progress, corporate accountability, shared planning, in-house monitoring and evaluation, and the critical importance of the teaching and curriculum co-ordinating roles, had done as much as concerted in-service training and advisory support, over years, to persuade schools to consider particular forms of development.

Why then, has the Office for Standards in Education decided to introduce - from the beginning of the summer term - a new Framework and three Handbooks, tailored to nurseryprimary, special and secondary schools, and different in important respects from the existing documentation? OFSTED was responding to concerns from several sources, not merely about the Handbook Framework itself, but about the form of inspection it provided for.

Inspectors found the Framework difficult to apply to primary schools, the Handbook repetitious and unwieldy, and the Record of Evidence elaborate and time-consuming.

OFSTED itself came to accept the enormous difficulty of making accurate judgments, in a restricted time-scale, about pupils' achievement in relation to their abilities, and the degree and nature of their learning over limited sequences of lessons. It seemed, too, that not enough account was being taken of the quality of teaching and, in particular, its impact on children's progress and achievement.

The schools, of course, had their own reservations. They wanted a more substantial dialogue between inspectors and teachers, more incisive, animated reporting that would reflect the distinctive nature of schools, their catchment areas and circumstances, something more than a "snapshot" perspective, that would take account of "where they had come from", of the contribution of previous work and effort to current achievement. They objected to the bureaucracy and paperwork that inspection required.

Above all, primary schools felt that the inspection model, perceived to be focused on management structures and subject-centred teaching common to the secondary phase, should be modified to be more compatible with primary education and practice.

It is intended that the changed procedure will make the process more manageable for all, increase the value of inspection to schools, and pay attention to a school's own evaluation of where it stands, its priorities, strengths and weaknesses. It will encourage sharper judgments about the quality of education, teaching and achievement, ensure clear, readable reports that state explicitly what schools need to do to tackle weaknesses, and provide, through the Key Issues for Action, a sound basis for planning.

Which specific developments are likely to satisfy primary expectations of a better-suited inspection process? Well, immediately, schools can look for more comfort and support in the technical changes: a less cumbersome Framework and Inspection Schedule, a tailored Handbook, a more relevant and helpful Pre-Inspection Context and School Indicator (PICSI) report, a simplified and reduced Headteacher's Form, less paperwork and bureaucracy.

They may perceive the replacement of "achievement in relation to ability" by "progress", that is, attainment in relation to evidence of prior achievement as more likely to reflect "value added" by the schools; a seven-point grading scale as more sensitive in evaluating - and valuing - the quality of teachers' work.

But it is in other developments that the genesis of an authentic primary inspection model may lie:

* Guidance to inspectors to report and draw out the distinctive characteristics of a school, to reflect on the factors which have an impact on quality and achievement, together with opportunity for the headteacher to bring defining features to the attention of the inspection team, should provide for recognition and acknowledgement of peculiar and vital elements of primary education: ethos, style and modes of working, complex pedagogy, and practice, especially in the nursery and key stage 1 sectors. Inspectors will be free to illuminate and clarify primary teaching and learning by reference to specific illustration and greater fluency in language.

* The opportunity to group subjects for reporting purposes may encourage a more sympathetic view of the project-led approaches to curriculum still common in primary schools, especially in the early years, key stage 1 and parts of key stage 2, limit the tendency for overall judgments of schools, particularly by subject-specialists, to be disproportionately affected by the cumulative impact of four, three or even two unsatisfactory subjects, and result in less stark summaries for parents.

However, what could prove in the long run to be one of the most influential developments simply requires inspectors, where possible, to discuss with staff "the context of work observed, its purpose and the reasons why work is undertaken in a particular way . . . to test hypotheses with staff before judgments are finalised".

This move to ensure that evidence does not miss essential truths, together with encouragement for inspectors to spend prolonged periods in classrooms, observing on a broader than single-subject basis, may contribute to a more substantial understanding of teachers' long-term planning, organisation and extended patterns of working, than an accumulation of isolated lessons would.

* Bill Laar is a registered inspector

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