How to judge the pick of the crop

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Chris Woodhead defends OFSTED's record, but accepts that some aspects of inspection couldbe improved. The TES survey finding that 82 per cent of headteachers believe that our inspections contribute to school improvement did not come as a surprise to us at the Office for Standards in Education.

Our own internal analysis shows that 83.5 per cent of heads are satisfied by their experience of inspection, and our largest contractor, has reported that 79 per cent of primary and 91 per cent of secondary heads respectively were positive or strongly positive about the value of inspections. It is, nonetheless, reassuring to find The TES confirming our own conclusions that those who actually run schools do not agree with the high-profile criticisms levelled at OFSTED by Carol Fitz-Gibbon, Tim Brighouse, Ted Wragg and others.

This does not mean, as OFSTED enters its fifth year, and I start my third at its helm, that we can rest on our laurels. To give just three examples of areas where I believe improvements are needed: * we must continue to strip out the jargon so that our judgments are communicated in a straightforward, intelligible manner; * we must work to ensure that each and every one of our reports details issues for action in a specific and helpful way; * above all else, we must maintain our drive to confront and eliminate ideological prejudice (progressive or traditional!) among our inspection teams.

This is a significant agenda and I shall continue to encourage feedback from schools that have been inspected so that we can improve on our present performance.

That said, many of the charges laid at our door have really been pretty silly.

The inspection system has been accused of being "judgmental and punitive" rather than "developmental and supportive"; we are said to have undermined morale by focusing on weaknesses and problems; and this has come about because, in the words of a TES leader early this year, "the once fiercely independent HMI" has been "politicised".

Of course judgments are involved in an inspection. How could it be otherwise? But to associate judgment with punishment is to confuse the need to identify the failing school and incompetent teacher with the wish to make that school or teacher suffer for their failures.

I believe that a well-argued report, convincingly grounded in empirical evidence, provides the school with an agenda for future action. What is that, if not developmental? The thousands of pounds of additional resource which LEAs have provided for their failing schools proves the point: the judgment that the school is failing is but the first step down the road to helping it to improve. Inspection and reporting - the professional external critique - are positive, not punitive, and I am glad it has now been demonstrated that this is how most headteachers appear to view it.

The TES survey also found that four out of five heads believe morale is good. It seems to be those who purport to speak for teachers rather than teachers themselves who believe that the profession has been reduced (in the memorable phrase of one professor of education) to the status of "marginalised victims". Morale, of course, is important. Dispirited, disillusioned teachers are not going to do much to raise standards among their pupils. But there is a difference between self-esteem and self-delusion. If inspectors do not speak out when they find unsatisfactory teaching, they will be contributing to the conspiracy that all is well when we know that it is not.

OFSTED would be abnegating its responsibility to parents, to Parliament and, ultimately, the children teachers are paid to teach. We would also be betraying the many excellent and committed teachers who know, deep down, that they are carrying incompetent colleagues. Above all we would be sabotaging the contribution inspection makes to school improvement.

The corollary to this, of course, is that we should highlight excellent practice wherever it is found. Good teachers and excellent schools deserve maximum praise. Although some of our critics choose to ignore this, OFSTED has taken every opportunity to give this recognition, not just in the list of good schools in my annual report to the Secretary of State, but in every report we have published where the good is emphasised alongside our analysis of what has been found to be problematic.

As for the charge of politicisation, one of my predecessors, Eric Bolton, recently wrote that HMI was never "wholly or consistently independent of Government". Neither, of course, is OFSTED. But as a government department in its own right, the inspectorate now has a real independence which simply was not possible in the past.

My aim as the chief inspector has been to discharge the responsibility that independence brings by reporting as we find. Given that OFSTED occupies an uneasy no man's land between the values, working assumptions and (let's be honest) vested interests of the profession and the concerns of parents, employers and politicians, it is not surprising that our reports have prompted the odd criticism.

Looking to the future, we shall continue to think hard about all that is said and written about us. We'll change what we do whenever we are convinced that we have done the wrong thing or reached a conclusion that is flawed. But when the criticism tells us more about the critic than it does of OFSTED, when the accusation (such as that of politicisation) amounts to no more than a knee-jerk reflex from those who want to evade the substantive issue, we will continue down the road we have been travelling this last five years.

This means that we shall continue to draw out the key issues from the inspection evidence so as to promote the debate about teaching methodology which lies at the heart of the drive to raise standards. Some no doubt will continue to rubbish what we do, but I become increasingly confident at the reaction of the majority. We stand, I believe, on the threshold of a new era in which the old, ideological constraints will be broken. There is every reason to be optimistic: about both the conduct of inspection, and, what ultimately is far more important, the willingness of the teaching profession to stand back and reflect upon what the evidence implies.

Chris Woodhead is the chief inspector of schools.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today