The inspector calls it a day

30th May 2003 at 01:00
The quiet man who invented Ofsted and made schools accountable is to retire, reports Biddy Passmore

For a man who has perhaps done more than anyone else to usher in the hard-nosed era of accountability in education, John Burchill seems remarkably gentle.

Tall, smiling and courteous in his neat navy suit, he does not look like a tester of tots or payer by results.

But the newly-retired chief inspector of the London borough of Wandsworth can claim to have pioneered baseline assessment, paved the way for tests at seven, 11 and 14 and introduced teacher appraisal linked to pupils'

progress. He led the way in using performance indicators to judge how well schools were doing and in testing primary pupils to form the basis of value-added analysis.

The gentleness is deceptive, of course. "He is elegant and eloquent, a master of detail and quietly determined to move things forward," says Graham Stapleton, head of Graveney school. "He is a master at bringing opposing factions together."

A champion of the role of the local education inspector (not "adviser", note - "We haven't gone for wishy-washy titles"), he set up in the early 1990s Wandsworth's own training scheme for new inspectors at Roehampton - the first of its kind in the country.

First in the borough of Croydon, where he became principal inspector in the late 1980s, and for the last 14 years at Tory-controlled Wandsworth, he has played a major part in creating the very model of a modern LEA.

Wandsworth's relationship with its schools, providing them with the management information they need to run themselves, was "an eminently realistic role for an authority to play," said the Office for Standards in Education in a glowing report in 2000.

Ah yes, Ofsted. In 1991, Mr Burchill published a book, Breaking the Monopoly, proposing a system of regular external inspection for schools.

The then Conservative education secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is said to have walked around for three months with the book in his briefcase before deciding to go ahead.

So Mr Burchill was responsible for Ofsted too? "It seems so," he says modestly. And he doesn't regret it: "On the whole, mature heads recognise how valuable it's been." But he feels distinct irritation with the way it works. He wishes it would differentiate more in its treatment of schools.

"Schools don't need nannying all the time," he says. In Wandsworth, he has pioneered school self-review and evaluation.

And he wants Ofsted to give more advice on what makes a good lesson. "I started as a teacher in Bradford in 1962," he says. "The one thing that has never changed is the buzz I get from sitting in on a good lesson."

After acquiring a Certificate of Education at St John's College, York, Mr Burchill taught in Jersey and with the British Families Education Service in Belgium and Germany. While abroad, he became fascinated by how children learned to read, developed a sophisticated diagnostic screening process and ended up in charge of the service's special education provision.

Back in England, he worked for the Schools Council Communication Skills Project at Leeds University before becoming county inspector for special education in Cumbria.

Now 60, he really is going to stop work to spend more time enjoying music and gardening. He and his wife Kath, a former teacher, will not move full-time to their house in the Pas de Calais while their 13-year-old daughter Cecily is still at school.

But they are moving in that direction: to Rochester. Mr Burchill has yet to find out if there will be room for the baby grand his family have promised him as a retirement present.

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