This inspector palls

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, and the nearest thing that education has at present to a pantomime villain, has attracted a cacophony of boos and hisses from the profession for his second annual report.

But as Lucy Hodges's profile of him shows (TES 2, page 2), Mr Woodhead is not a man who will slink off the political stage just because a few tomatoes are tossed at him. His credo is that articulated by a former senior chief inspector, Professor Eric Bolton, 10 years ago: "An Inspectorate that does its job properly is not primarily concerned with the comfort of those upon whose work it reports."

Although the first HMIs who were appointed in 1840 were specifically requested to "afford assistance to teachers" (and see that government money was wisely spent), they have seldom endeared themselves to schools. Furthermore, Mr Woodhead is only airing many of the same criticisms of schools and teachers as his recent predecessors have made. It is not only the inspectors who have found fault, either. Two years ago, the National Commission on Education - an unimpeachably independent body - reported: "The barrage of evidence is alarming, and leads to a clear conclusion that the quality of a significant minority of teachers is unsatisfactory and that the overall quality of the profession needs to be raised."

Mr Woodhead is also justified in drawing attention to the gulf between the best and worst schools which the GCSE and A-level tables have already exemplified. And who can gainsay that more attention should be paid to literacy and numeracy when Britain lies 35th in the world table for "adequacy of education"? The promised Office for Standards in Education survey of spending patterns in a cross-section of schools may prove productive too, and is timely, given that schools failed to spend no less than Pounds 500 million of their 1994-95 budget allocations.

But having supported the chief inspector thus far, it is necessary to add several caveats. Although he has made a bigger effort to celebrate success this year, he has still produced a commentary that could have been written by any Conservative education minister. Yes, some school accommodation is unsatisfactory, he says, but there is bad teaching in the most lavishly appointed schools (ergo cash for premises isn't as important as teachers say it is). Yes, some schools lack books and equipment, but perhaps it is because they choose to spend their money on other things (true in some cases, no doubt, but grossly unfair to the many schools with rising class sizes and no budget surpluses that are still spending less than Pounds 5 per pupil a year on books).

Moreover, a distinction should be drawn between the evidence from inspections and Mr Woodhead's own contention - much-quoted as a fact this week - that overall standards of pupil achievement need to be raised in 50 per cent of primary schools and two-fifths of secondaries. He might be justified in raising such expectations. The Government's own national education and training targets do something similar, after all. But mixing aspiration and opinion with reportage in the way his commentary does is misleading.

Identifying 203 schools as either excellent or making marked improvements is no doubt an attempt to produce a more balanced report. In effect, however, it is unfair to the many schools, particularly primaries, that have yet to be inspected. The public will assume that those listed are better than neighbouring schools, even though they may not be. The roll of honour will also be a bitter disappointment to those schools that did not rate a mention despite earning glowing inspection reports this year. They must now conclude that they were not good enough.

But then making teachers feel bad about themselves is something that the chief inspector has done too much of over the past 18 months. He may be sincere when he says that he wants to restore a belief in the teacher as an authority who knows more than his pupils, but to date he has done more than anyone else to undermine that belief. Incompetence by even a very small minority cannot be tolerated in teaching. But there are more sensitive and productive ways of getting this message across. By choosing to ignore them, Mr Woodhead has unfortunately earned the opprobrium of the profession and helped to diminish the authority of OFSTED in its eyes.

Even he has had a better week than Gillian Shephard, however. The Education and Employment Secretary's unexplained about-turn on key stage 2 performance tables has left her looking weak and indecisive. Two weeks ago she said the tables could not be produced until the tests had "bedded down". Now the tables are to be hurriedly thrown together and paraded in front of parents before their buttons can be done up. As a result, there are bound to be some baleful consequences.

There will inevitably be more teaching to the test and less attention to arts subjects and other "peripheral" curriculum areas. As it will be impossible to gauge how much progress this year's 11-year-old cohort have made over the past four years (the key stage 1 statistics are incomplete or inadequate) the key stage 2 results are as likely to reflect the socio-economic background of children as schools' effectiveness. The tables will also ensure that competition for places in the "best" schools will intensify and more families will move into the catchment areas of the star performers. So the estate agents should benefit even if no one else does.

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