Inspectors' call too brief for final verdict;Letter

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
As an Office for Standards in Education team member, I watched the recent Channel 4 programme Dispatches and read your subsequent article (TES, March 20) with great interest.

I have sympathy with the schools that have had a less-than-positive experience of OFSTED, but since schools and inspections alike are managed by humans, some will inevitably be better than others.

I am not at all surprised that the judgments of inspectors cluster in grades 3, 4, and 5. Most accept that what they see in the classroom is not necessarily typical of the school or the individual teacher, and are likely, if reasonably humane, to "make allowances".

Even in the best regulated schools, the tension generated by the advent of OFSTED is considerable. Many teachers have agreed with me that the long notice of inspection only heightens the tension, and two weeks' notice at most would be preferable.

The statutory inspection of schools was the response of politicians who were primarily interested in weeding out bad teaching. That aggressive approach breeds insecurity in even the best of teachers, and inspectors often find them in a state of great tension which neither serves the best interests of the pupils, nor shows off teaching skills to advantage.

Inspections encourage lots of "safe" teaching, and informal discussion often reveals that, had inspectors not been there, teachers would have approached lessons in a much more interesting and stimulating way.

Inspectors have to make very quick assessments during a lesson. There are many aspects to cover, and limited time in which to do it. One feels sympathy with a football referee. While the judgments published in the report are the result of the inspection team's careful reflection on the evidence, there is no time for reflection during the evidence-gathering process. Inspectors move quickly from one lesson to another, with scarcely a pause.

It is a brave inspector who, on negligible consideration of so much evidence, condemns a teacher to the lower pole of the judgment spectrum, or heaps great praise on him or her.

Pupils, too, are often adversely affected by the intrusion of "special visitors", and fail to show themselves at their most imaginative or perceptive. We have to remember that we do not judge pupils' ability; we only judge what pupils deign to show us of their ability, and that may not be the same thing.

When I was a primary headteacher, substantially before OFSTED, I should have been glad of more objective comment than I received on what I was doing. To that extent I see a value in inspection. However, it is invalid to make definitive and critical statements on the basis of evidence that is gathered under such duress as inspections currently generate.

I believe that OFSTED can help even weak schools, but only if the motive behind the process is clearly seen as supportive, and only if the evidence on which reports are based is accepted as being only a possibly flawed reflection of the school's normal performance.

The best that a report can do is indicate how the school seemed to be to the inspection team. When the inspectors have left the school, having communicated their findings to staff, governors and parents, but not to the world at large, a school should be monitored (dare I suggest by local authority) to see how the OFSTED team's judgments were borne out in a specific longer period.

Only at the end of that period, a report on both the inspection week and the ensuing weeks might reasonably be made public and become the basis for action. Politicians and OFSTED officials should base their comments and assessments of the education scene on the complete process, and not just on the snapshot provided by the present system. I accept that modern politics likes quick assessments, but I believe that schools and their pupils will flourish more readily under a more thorough, long-term, constructive approach.

TONY WENMAN, 7 Common Road, Claygate, Surrey.

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