26th January 2001 at 00:00

INSPECTION: What's in it for Schools? By James Learmonth. Series edited by Kate Myers and John MacBeath. Routledge Falmer. pound;12.99.

"What's in it for schools?" is a promising theme for a series designed to unpick key educational policy issues for practitioners, and it certainly hits the button with James Learmonth's timely first title.

The parting of the ways between Chris Woodhead and Ofsted creates the ideal opportunity to reopen the debate about the purposes, shape and future of school inspection, and Learmonth - former headteacher, HMI, LEA chief inspector, Ofsted "reggie" and now an academic working in school improvement - has the credentials and the pedigree his grandfather was a headteacher for more than 30 years.

"When a Head Master of the professional skill and versatility of Mr Learmonth gathers round him a highly competent staff minute reports become superfluous," wrote HM inspector in 1902 (a line that no 21st-century school inspector would get away with, comments the younger Learmonth). But it is one of the many apt quotes, cartoons and headlines with which he illuminates a compelling analysis.

Current controversies about Ofsted's methodology and style are taken head-on and, though Learmonth allows the main case for the opposition to be put by Ofstin (Carol Fitz-Gibbon's unofficial Office for Standards in Inspection), Brunel University's Centre for the Evaluation of Public Policy and Practice, and the House of Commons Select Committee, there is little doubt where his sympathies lie.

It is also true, however, that the balanced conclusions he reaches on a future for inspection, which ties it far more positively into school improvement, standards and self-evaluation, are set in a broad historical perspective and based on research evidence, as well as informed by his own experience.

It is worth recalling, for example, how many of the inspection issues that have so preoccupied recent debate have been in and outof inspectorial fashion for a century-and-a-half. How far should social context be taken into account? Is the purpose accountability or development? Should inspectors offer advice and support in the light of "knowing" a school, or should they just (as Chris Woodhead advocates) sweep in to take a snapshot?

Should they be concerned with "affording assistance," as Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth (of the Privy Council Committee on Education) instructed the first inspectors in 1840, rather than "exercising control"? Should the inspectorate be involved in policy-making and report back to government on its effects, or operate independently? Is evaluation a job for national or local government, for the school itself, or any of the other stakeholders - governors, parents or pupils?

Learmonth poses his own questions for staffroom discussion in each chapter, but he argues that inspection is counter-productive unless it contributes to improved standards. And the evidence on which he rests his case suggests that the current Ofsted process is not compatible with the best tenets of (essentially bottom-up) school improvement, an argument that lies at the heart of his book.

The wise view is that outside agencies must be involved to guard against recycling inadequacy. So, given the growing consensus in favour of school self-evaluation as a strong component of future inspection, Learmonth concludes by examining the different "internal" plus "external" models:

"parallel", "sequential" or "co-operative" already being developed around the world.

So the answer to the question "what's in it for schools?" is supported self-evaluation; a process "at once more rigorous and more constructive than Ofsted" involving all the stakeholders, with teachers as partners rather than targets and school inspectors "affording assistance". Teachers attracted by this model should start reading here.

Patricia Rowan was editor of The TES from 1989 to 1997

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