Inspecting for a new culture;Analysis

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Chris Price examines how HM Inspectorate's liberal traditions have been transformed over the past few years

Next year Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools celebrates its 160th anniversary. For 156 of those years this venerable collegiate body scarcely rated a footnote in the Press; over the past four years Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, and his staff have had to live with media attention.

The origins of this transformation lie in the way a new chief inspector has been able to redefine his role and to use the constitution of the Office for Standards in Education to centralise the culture and practice of education in English schools.

In the early 1990s the fashion for privatisation was extended to education. Schools, the libertarian lobbyists of the Right argued, did not need central or local inspectorates. They could be regulated by a mixture of competition and parent power with quality assurance being provided by (competing) privatised inspectorates. HM inspectors and local authorities were far too politically incorrect to be trusted with standards and the national curriculum. They should both be abolished.

But in his 1991 Bill, Kenneth Clarke, the education secretary, tried to have it both ways. He rejected the abolition of HMI while accepting self-employed privatised inspectors. The libertarians were horrified. He had substituted public monopoly for market forces, and conformity for diversity. Clarke's attempt to assuage them by slimming down the inspectorate and, in the teeth of civil service advice, removing it from the Department for Education and Employment only made matters worse. Now it was the House of Lords which was horrified at the lack of accountability. A "privatised regulator" seemed a contradiction in terms.

While OFGAS and OFWAT had been set up as regulators under ministerial accountability, the inspectorate was to be a non-ministerial department.

Amendments were proposed to tighten public supervision of the system - particularly to prevent schools simply picking the inspection body that suited them best; and, because the bishops suspected that the Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector might turn out to be an atheist conspiracy, they proposed that the inspection of children's moral, spiritual, social and cultural development should be written into the Act. All these amendments had to be accepted by Clarke, otherwise the Bill would have fallen with the 1992 election.

So the new inspectorate emerged as a hybrid organisation in which HMI staff officers set out to train a new mercenary army ofnon-commissioned officers - privatised inspectors. At first the DFEE asked for a prescriptive code of conduct to regain some control; but Terry Melia, the acting chief inspector, watered this down to a framework of inspection.

On analysis, this formulation neatly divides into three generic areas: standards of attainment in the subjects of the national curriculum; the management of available financial resources; and the "hidden curriculum" implicit in two of the inspection framework's principles: the "quality" of education provided as evidenced by "spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils".

As an inspectorial mission statement, it fell between two stools - reasonable for the "State of the Nation" annual reports of previous chief inspectors, but far too ambitious for this New Model Army.

Raw standards were not too difficult: they involved, by and large, checking work, ticking boxes and feeding ticks into computers; managerial efficiency and effectiveness would have been a more suitable remit for the Audit Commission which already had a decade of experience in this area; but assessing the "hidden curriculum" (an issue deep at the heart of educational philosophy) was a ludicrously overambitious task on which to report fairly over four days. Specialist organisations with quality assessment expertise have long recognised that this process needs substantial time and resources, and willing employee co-operation.

As a result "standards" inevitably overrode other inspectorial duties; and the change of name to OFSTED seemed to validate this priority - though Stewart Sutherland, Melia's successor and the inventor of the acronym, insists its only purpose was to describe the new body.

This apparent simplification of the inspectorial task, like compulsory testing, won bipartisan support among politicians. With tranches of cash diverted from local authorities and an office of its own, OFSTED grew exponentially in both size (see below) and in political confidence. To its supporters, it was a development destined to succeed; a steady flood of press releases proclaimed its success in raising standards. To others, it seemed like the "dumbing down" of a unique and valuable institution.

The father of English school inspection was Matthew Arnold, who held posts in the inspectorate for more than 35 years between 1851 and 1886 and established a liberal and tolerant tradition which almost all his successors followed.

William Elliott, in the 1960s, was a cultured classical scholar; in the 1970s Sheila Browne, a distinguished modern linguist, ran the inspectorate before becoming principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. Even after 1992, the liberal tradition persisted. An eminent philosopher, Stewart Sutherland, was persuaded to combine the job with that of vice-chancellor of London University.

It was when Sutherland was lured back to Scotland in 1994 to take the vice-chancellorship of Edinburgh University that the nature of OFSTED changed.

Conservative governments had increasingly seen this liberal tradition, personified in the inspectorate, as a self-perpetuating freemasonry thwarting their plans to modernise the mind-sets of the rising generation. To entrench their political hegemony they established quangos to enforce standards, curricula, qualifications, testing and training - a process the Times commentator Simon Jenkins has characterised as the "Tory nationalisation of Britain".

In this environment the inspectorate could no longer tolerate a civilised aesthete of the old school. It needed a New Chief Inspector Man; in the event, he was waiting in the wings.

Chris Woodhead had taught English in secondary schools before serving as a deputy chief officer in a couple of county education authorities. In transferring to the nationalised quango scene (rising through the National Curriculum Council and School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to OFSTED in the space of three years) he calculated the new politics of education to the millimetre, welcoming Thatcherian values and effortlessly translating them to New Labour Blairism.

His recent spat with Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer , is a serious one about (among other things) the respective roles of praise and blame in teaching. Woodhead believes in "naming and shaming" as an effective motivator; many education philosophers do not, including Sir Ernest Hall who, in his recent Royal Society of Arts Arts Council lecture on the seeds of creativity, put far greater emphasis on praise and encouragement.

Under the 1992 Act, Woodhead's task is to "advise" David Blunkett: but OFSTED's report on Birmingham contains the statement: "the notion that success should be public and failure private is unacceptable to the Government".

Arnold and his successors had to rely on eloquence and persuasion; Woodhead's job is different; he commands troops and real power. His "advice" is rapidly shading into executive action on behalf of a nationalised school culture.

Christopher Price is editor of the Stakeholder and a former chairman of the House of Commons select committee on education.


* quality of education provided by schools

* educational standards achieved in schools

* how financial resources are managed

* spiritual, moral, social and cultural development o

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