Inspector accused of intimidating tactics again

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
A Registered Inspector has been accused of conducting inspections in an intimidatory and relentlessly negative style by four primary schools in Birmingham, eight months after four primaries in the South-east submitted identical complaints about the same man to the Office for Standards in Education.

Mr Geoffrey Owen recently gave three Birmingham schools reports that were much worse than expected, and judged the fourth to be in need of special measures - to the surprise of staff, parents, governors and the local authority.

David Woods, Birmingham's chief adviser, has written to the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, complaining about Mr Owen's manner during inspections. "We have no argument with the idea that weaknesses must be identified and we're not pretending that these schools are perfect, but we were surprised by his verdicts. We feel there is a pattern emerging here: he (Geoffrey Owen) has a negative view of inspection; his style is to look for failure while ignoring strengths."

Two Birmingham heads had to take sick leave after their schools were inspected, and one school was described as being "ravaged" by Mr Owen. Last March, three schools in London and one in Hampshire signed a joint letter of protest complaining about bullying behaviour by Mr Owen.

Donald Nelson, the chair of governors at Rookery Junior in Handsworth, Birmingham, wrote to OFSTED last week calling the inspection "a travesty". Rookery Infants school, on the same site, was inspected recently by a different team and given a good report.

The school has sent a dossier on the inspection to OFSTED. In it, Mr Owen is accused of failing to talk to teachers, of ignoring parents, of failing to look at examples of pupils' work or documentary information provided by staff, and of arriving to observe lessons five minutes before the end. The most persistent complaint is that he homed in on minor failings and then extrapolated from them in order to condemn the whole school.

On discipline, the pupils' behaviour was judged to be good, but the report withholds credit for this from teachers because the children were "inherently well disciplined" as a result of their family background. The school disputes this, pointing out that Handsworth is by no means affluent and that 55 per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals, that 70 per cent enter school with a reading age below their chronological age and that the school makes a point of taking pupils excluded from other schools.

Mr Owen gave two teachers an "unsatisfactory" grade after observing two of their lessons. A maths teacher was failed on "lack of subject knowledge"; Mr Owen disputed her description of the properties of a cone. "We have checked with many maths teachers since and the information given to the children has been verified as absolutely correct," says the school.

The other teacher criticised was newly qualified, and giving a games lesson. Mr Owen apparently argued with the teacher, in front of the class, about how many children should be in the lesson.

The school maintains that the teacher was right, but that she was so disconcerted by Mr Owen's approach that the lesson was not a success. "She was totally distressed and demoralised."

Rookery Infants and Rookery junior share the same governors, but while they were praised by the team reporting on the infants school, they were "heavily criticised" by Mr Owen's report.

Mr Owen decided the school was not meeting its obligations over special needs, yet the authority subsequently scrutinised every aspect of SEN and could not find one weakness, the school says. When the SEN co-ordinator told Mr Owen about the LEA's inspection of the SEN department, he is alleged to have replied he "was not interested in Birmingham or its methods".

At Princethorpe Junior, which was expected by Birmingham to get a better report than Mr Owen gave it, the head, Robin Reynolds, said he was "unhappy with the way our strengths seemed to shrink and our weaknesses to grow. This is bad for OFSTED because it highlights the impression that it doesn't matter what you do or don't do, it's who you set that matters."

OFSTED admits it has received various complaints about Mr Owen in the past. "But at this stage we have nothing to substantiate the allegations," said a spokesman.

John Bridger, general manager of Cambridge Education Associates, the inspection contractor that employs Mr Owen, would not comment on complaints from Birmingham because he had not seen them. "But we have every confidence in OFSTED's ability to handle complaints in a just and thorough way."

Lynn Harries, the wife of the head of Hillbrook primary in London, failed by Mr Owen last year, rang The TES to say that her husband had been off with severe depression since April.

"He is only 44, but the only option now is early retirement. Before this, he had no history of neurosis, he was very confident. But when you have 20 years' work rubbished in a few days, it's hard to bounce back."

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