Inspectors face tighter scrutiny

7th May 1999 at 01:00
More monitoring aims to improve quality as Woodhead tells schools to 'bin' banal reports, writes Nicolas Barnard.

SCHOOL inspectors face three times as much scrutiny under plans by the Office for Standards in Education to tighten its quality control.

Nearly one-third of the 5,000 inspections carried out this year will be subject to spot checks by HM inspectors who will turn up with only one day's notice to observe registered inspectors in action.

The news follows Chris Woodhead's advice to schools to "bin" OFSTED reports written in convoluted language. The chief inspector admitted that some reports lapse into banality. The agency has always robustly defended the quality of its inspections, while acknowledging the existence of the occasional rogue inspector. It says that the tighter checks are part of its commitment to quality.

The move was regarded by headteachers as a tacit acceptance of on-going problems - bolstered by an admission by OFSTED's director of inspection, Mike Tomlinson. Mr Tomlinson, addressing the Secondary Heads Association two weeks ago, said that some schools had "experienced inspections that not only didn't meet their requirements, but actively and unfortunately knocked back was happening already in the school.

"Until this is not the case, improvement will always be an issue for OFSTED and a personal passion," he said.

Twenty inspectors have been removed from OFSTED's register of around 260 in the past two years. The most notorious was Geoffrey Owen, the "inspector from hell", who it was claimed drove one head towards a nervous breakdown, but nevertheless received a letter of fulsome praise from Mr Woodhead. Another 40 are under close observation.

Mr Tomlinson said that while he was confident that inspectors' judgments were sound and consistent, a small minority conducted themselves badly or were insensitive to the circumstances of the school. Some reports were vague and unhelpful while others failed to give sufficient praise.

OFSTED monitors 10 per cent of registered inspectors each year, joining them on inspections and sitting in as they observe lessons, meet staff and heads and discuss their conclusions with the inspection team. That will now rise to 30 per cent a year.

OFSTED spokesman Jonathon Lawson said: "Chris Woodhead has always been clear that we are never satisfied and never complacent."

John Dunford, general secretary of SHA, said: "We've been concerned about the leadership and the quality of some teams. As the inspectors' pay has gone down, the quality has got worse.

"It's an inevitable consequence of an inspection system based on contracts and tendering. In a sensible system, HMIs would lead the team instead of freelance inspectors. But a much higher level of monitoring is a good second best."

Mr Woodhead's suggested method of disposing of some reports had failed to impress heads. "He should be attending to the quality of the reports he's suggesting we bin," Mr Dunford said. "It's a tacit admission that there's a problem with quality."

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