Inspect the uninspected

10th October 2003 at 01:00
I have reluctantly concluded that the only solution for school inspection is to close Ofsted and start again. I know. I can hear the screams of dismay from millions of teachers to whom Ofsted inspectors are cuddly aunts and uncles, but I am adamant. Schools must be inspected properly, so it has to go.

Ofsted is now a relic of our sad past, when relationships between the government and schools were founded on a model of mistrust and punishment, instead of the improvement of teaching and learning.

It is the state police of a totalitarian regime, with 'compliance' as its watchword. Ask teachers too scared to innovate what they are afraid of, and "Ofsted" will be the inevitable answer.

Inspection has only been rescued by the many inspectors determined to turn it into a human, rather than a mechanical process. But in a 21st century society, when we eventually get one, the process itself will be doomed.

The inspection framework has been tweaked, but the limitations still persist. A bunch of strangers, from a private company that may know bugger all about the school and its locality, descend at huge cost and scribble for a week, before speaking the language of educationally subnormal chimps and disappearing.

It is like ringing the garage and being told your carburettor is satisfactory, but your clutch is below the national average, or that your car is in special measures. "The evidence base for this conclusion is an inspection of the engine lasting twenty-three minutes . . . glob, glob . .

." Anyone speaking Ofstedese outside education would be locked away.

Teacher training is still being inspected to death. My own university, in the top two nationally, has had inspections in six of the last seven years.

Busy and competent people should be rioting in protest, but instead they fill tables with tons of paper, barely a year since they got a hatful of grade ones. I am in favour of inspection, which is why I think we need a system that works. It should be for public service, not private profit.

National inspectors should lead, supported by local inspectors and practitioners.

Experienced heads and teachers should be given two-year partial secondments, both to inspect and do follow-up work, so improvements are more likely to happen. The exercise would benefit them, and their experience would enhance the schools they inspected. Conversations about teaching should be in natural language. Ofstedese should join Latin, Sanskrit and Manx as an extinct tongue.

I would keep David Bell as Chief Inspector, as he is just the right person to make a better system work, and also retain almost all the current HMI, other than the odd dinosaur whose blood vessels are too choked with 1990s orthodoxy.

Politicians will not really shut down Ofsted and start again, of course, even though it makes sense. They could not handle any flak, so they are more likely to run stark naked round and round Piccadilly, gibbering on about "our standards agenda", until the last disaffected teacher has quit.

Tinkering is not the answer. Look at the latest wheeze, the voluntary Ofsted pupil questionnaire. There is nothing wrong with pupil feedback, but Ofsted should not be eliciting it. Schools will probably be too terrified to demur, but they should tell Ofsted to insert it in the customary place for such naff ideas.

One of the items is: "Are your lessons interesting and fun?" This betrays a fundamental principle of questionnaire construction: never combine two elements in the same question. As a boy scout I promised to smile and whistle under all difficulties. Try doing both at the same time, it doesn't half bring tears to your eyes.

Lessons can be interesting, but serious; fun, but not interesting in subject terms, because three pupils are tying the teacher to a chair.

Other items are equally empty, like "Do you get help when you are stuck?"

From whom? This should be good for any teacher who used to work for the RAC, but it is vacuous.

"Do teachers show you how to make your work better?" will be handy for those crooks who show children how to alter their SATs. "Are you trusted to do things on your own?" What 'things', for goodness' sake? Rolling joints? Burning the school down? Shouldn't the notion of 'worthwhileness' penetrate here?

The only solution is for schools to issue a reverse questionnaire, in which pupils and teachers comment on inspectors.

"What did you think of the Ofsted inspector who fell asleep in your maths lesson?", "Whose fault was it that he fell asleep? Was it (a) the boring lesson, (b) his big lunch, or (c) the fact that he works for an institution which is now well past its sell-by date and should be laid quietly to rest?"

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