Inspection: have we got it all wrong?

31st October 2014 at 00:00
If you dread a visit from inspectors, remember you're not alone: most teachers around the world are subjected to some form of scrutiny. Stephen Exley investigates the merits of rigorous assessment versus light-touch support - and asks whether schools need external evaluation at all

There is no road to Scoraig School. Anyone wanting to pay a visit has no option but to abandon their car five miles away, before setting off down a rough track along the shore of Little Loch Broom in the Scottish Highlands.

Not surprisingly, Scoraig, dubbed the most remote school in Scotland, seldom receives visitors. But a party of uninvited guests in November 2011 caused quite a stir. "There are some great stories about the guys cycling down a track to it and somebody else going over by boat," says Jane Renton, assistant director of school improvement body Education Scotland.

Whereas all but the most intrepid of travellers might have been tempted to throw in the towel, these visitors were undeterred. They had a very important job to do: they were school inspectors.

For the majority of teachers around the world, it is impossible to escape inspection. Whether the organisation on an inspector's business card is England's Ofsted, Wales' Estyn or Singapore's formidable-sounding School Appraisal Branch, external evaluation is common to most school systems. Over three-quarters of the countries included in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), including the vast majority of European nations, carry out some form of inspection.

The notice period can vary from three weeks to 15 minutes. Inspectors can scrutinise individual teachers or whole schools, and may stay for a matter of hours or as long as a week. For some countries, the I-word is strictly off limits. "We have review officers, not inspectors," a New Zealand education official stresses tersely to TES. Estonia, meanwhile, prefers the term "supervision". Some countries do not even publish their reports.

And for teaching professionals across the globe, the stranger sitting at the back of the classroom with a clipboard has the power to make or break careers. In England, a poor inspection result can trigger enforced school intervention. In Albania, it can lead to the headteacher being sacked. In Sweden, schools can be fined or closed down. Teachers in France may have fought off efforts to introduce whole-school inspections - for now, at least - but are instead evaluated individually as part of the process by which they become qualified.

Blueprints from Britain

With such a plethora of systems in use, is it possible to conclude which form of inspection works best? And, given the stress it can cause for teachers, do we need this kind of evaluation at all?

The border between England and Scotland separates two distinctly different inspection systems, which have shaped government policies around the world.

In the red-and-white corner stands Ofsted. The inspectorate has a reputation for being uncompromising and rigorous, assigning whole-school judgements on a range of criteria, with schools bluntly judged to be outstanding, good, requires improvement or inadequate.

Internationally, Ofsted appears to be perceived as somewhat inflexible. A 2011 report by French research organisation L'Institut Franais de l'Eacute;ducation (IFEacute;) describes the body as offering "central regulation involving periodic and codified school assessments". Even closer to home, the Isle of Man government's official website stresses in no uncertain terms that Ofsted's power does not extend to its shores. The island's self-evaluation-based system, it adds, "is seen as a more productive and inclusive way of developing school excellence".

In recent months, England's inspectorate has come under fire from both ends of the political spectrum. At the ATL teaching union's annual conference in April, a motion was passed proclaiming that Ofsted had lost "almost all credibility with the teaching profession". And last month the NUT union published a survey revealing that 62 per cent of teachers feel preparation for Ofsted and practice inspections is contributing to their excessive workload. Even right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange has claimed that you would be "better off flipping a coin" than trusting an inspector's verdict on a lesson.

But distance, it appears, makes the heart grow fonder. Shanghai - the top performer in the most recent Pisa tables from 2012 - freely admits basing its inspection system on Ofsted. And US thinktank Education Sector has claimed that exporting the English approach to the other side of the Atlantic could result in "much more nuanced judgements" about school performance and "accelerate timelines for school improvement".

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