Inspectors have hard duties to perform

18th December 1998 at 00:00
I was enormously saddened to learn of John Harries' illness following his school's inspection. I am deeply upset that he has had to take early retirement due to ill health and I appreciate his concern for me as a fellow "victim" of the OFSTED process.

I took every care during the inspection of Hillbrook Primary, as I did in all schools, to keep the headteacher informed about the progress of the inspection, and to consider the most professionally supportive ways to discuss, and then report, the team's findings. John's response to the briefing on the last day of the inspection was extreme, and deeply upsetting for me and the other registered inspector who accompanied me. I did everything I could to lessen the shock of what I was obliged to tell John, but it clearly was not enough. He has my deepest sympathy and best wishes. I would do anything I could to help him.

Until now I have been unable to reply publicly to the allegations made against me but I am now free to tell my side of the story. I fully accept that I have made mistakes and have said and done things which, with hindsight, I would wish not to have said or done. However, I am not a "victim" of a "kafkaesque" inspection system since I was - and still am - fully committed to the need for an independent inspectorate which reports its findings publicly.

Not all our schools are working effectively and too many of our children are being let down by the undemanding and uninteresting work that is provided for them. In many cases teachers' efforts are ineffective because of weak leadership, poor management and inadequate support and guidance. There is no easy way to tell headteachers that their work has significant shortcomings, but it has been part of my duty to report clearly and honestly when the inspection evidence indicates there is a causal link between the unsatisfactory progress of the pupils and the weaknesses in the way the school is led and managed.

You may suggest there has to be some truth in the allegations made by so many schools but I would say that this has happened to me for a number of reasons. I have been a very active inspector and have found 10 failing schools out of the 65 I have inspected, much higher than the national average of 2 per cent "failing".

One of the problems faced by the majority of teachers who are fortunate to work in the many good schools - and I have inspected a good number of those - is that they will have no appreciation of just how bad a school has to be to be judged by an inspection team to require special measures. Equally, those few working in the poor schools have little idea of what a good school looks like or what they need to do to improve.

My work as an inspector has finished. Although many may raise a cheer at this news I must pay tribute to the courage and openness of the many headteachers and teachers, who, though finding my inspections to be thorough and uncomfortable in some aspects, also acknowledge the value of a truly independent appraisal of their work - as one very experienced Birmingham headteacher put it "the best management advice and information I have received in over 20 years as a headteacher". I treasure those comments and there have been many of them, far more than the number of complaints, but I also sympathise deeply with the situation that too many teachers and headteachers have found themselves in when facing an inspection, poorly led and badly managed; lacking confidence in the quality of their work although they know just how very hard they are working; and force-fed with myth and rumour about the nature of inspectors and inspections.

Of course there will always be disagreements about how inspections should be carried out and how inspectors should behave, but the public attacks on my good name when I have had no opportunity to respond have demeaned those who made them and have added further pressure to those teachers facing an inspection: is it any wonder that some emotionally fragile teachers respond tearfully when properly asked to explain their work? The sooner teachers recognise that questions do not imply criticisms but are an essential part of a critical process of reflection on their work; and that inspections of some kind are part of the normal experience of nearly all working adults, the sooner we will be able to conduct an open, professional dialogue about what is working, and what is not, in our schools.

Geoffrey Owen 48 Mudford Road, Yeovil Somerset

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