An inspector mauls

22nd August 2008 at 01:00

I retired as head of Leith Academy in Edinburgh in December 2007. A week before the end of term, it was announced that an inspection was to be carried out in January 2008.

My frustration at not being involved in this exercise was immense but, more importantly, I would seriously question the fairness of the timing. When the inspection actually took place, almost the entire management team were in acting positions, along with several other key staff. This always has a destabilising effect, no matter how competent the personnel. Surely for a true reflection of how a school is doing, such exercises should be carried out (as far as possible) during periods of relative stability?

However, my concerns run deeper and echo those of other headteachers who have written publicly recently. Much had been made of the new approach to inspections, heralded earlier in the year. Achievement in the wider sense was to be recognised, rather than simply focusing on exam results. We looked forward to this progressive change.

Imagine our disappointment when it became glaringly obvious that exam attainment was still the key driver. Comparatively poor examination results in the past two years coloured all the statements made and influenced the line of questioning taken. Unusual local circumstances which had affected our exam results were dismissed as "excuses". Unfortunately, the fact that results overall had been improving generally over the previous five years was largely missed.

In addition, major curriculum changes which were being implemented (with a view to raising attainment, among other things) were seen as being too slow. There was little recognition of high staff turnover, pressure of work and the need for due consultation to ensure that any changes were successfully carried out and resourced properly so they could be sustained.

Most upsetting was the manner in which this inspection was carried out. I have not spoken with any member of staff who did not feel that it was unnecessarily adversarial and negative. It is quite an achievement that - to demotivate an entire staff. There is little doubt morale has been seriously damaged and this surely cannot be the way to bring about sustained improvement and a commitment from staff.

The report does not reflect accurately the school I have known and led for 13 years. Almost all areas of work are negatively affected by the over- emphasis on the recent exam results. It does not adequately record the progress made in "wider achievement". The excellent work in pupil support and pastoral care (evidenced in a previous HMIE care and welfare report and HMIE national good practice publications) was hardly mentioned.

If the purpose of inspections is to offer objectivity and challenge, so that schools may work towards improving areas of their work, then a very different approach is required. A narrow, single-minded emphasis which only considers "impact", regardless of the efforts, strategies and approaches in place, will only serve to disengage staff from the process of evaluation. It should be informative and supportive, rather than combative.

Sandy McAulay, was headteacher of Leith Academy.

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