Inspectors who wear silk gloves

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
Tears over heavy-handed OFSTED visits may be history for many schools if the 'light-touch' approach works. Warwick Mansell reports

WHEN Her Majesty's Inspectors came calling at Bassingbourn Village College last term, they found the roof covered in scaffolding and builders "all over the place".

Hardly the best preparation for an inspection by the Office for Standards in Education, but this may be a sign of things to come.

Under the Government's new "light-touch" regime, which Bassingbourn was piloting, the school was given only four weeks' notice of an inspection visit.

The former grant-maintained school in south Cambridgeshire was not able to reschedule the essential roof work. So the inspectors got a warts-and-all view that governor John Penny said would have been unthinkable had Bassingbourn been going through a conventional inspection.

The short lead-in time is one of the main features of light-touch, for which around a quarter of schools are expected to qualify next year.

Those which can demonstrate sustained success through previous inspection reports, test and exam results, will be offered the chance of mini visits from the inspectors.

For Bassingbourn, one of the five schools to test the new system, the contrast with its previous inspection in 1996 was dramatic.

Instead of 14 inspectors, there were four, including the lay inspector, and they spent just two days at the school, which has 515 students, compared with the previous four.

Inevitably, the inspectors could not spend as much time observing in the classroom. All lessons were seen, but a fifth of them for less than the full period. The inspectors, who also talked to pupils outside lesson time, focused not on subject areas, but on the quality of teaching and learning across the curriculum.

The school was also given the chance to select an area for more detailed analysis. It chose the way it caters for more able pupils, including a full programme of "twilight" classes.

Another key difference was the amount of paperwork inspected. On the previous visit, inspectors had wanted "every last piece of information", according to principal Val Harris. This time they repeatedly turned down teachers' requests to read departmental development plans.

If the approach in these areas was necessarily a shade more superficial than in a traditional inspection, the scrutiny of the school's leadership was more detailed. Mrs Harris said the lead inspector spent most of the pre-inspection day questioning her, while Mr Penny said the two-hour governors' session had been much more exacting than before.

How did all these changes go down with the school?

Mrs Harris said there was some concern about inspectors not sitting through entire lessons. It was important, some teachers had felt, that they saw the beginning, middle and end of each 55-minute session.

This worry was shared by another of the five pilot schools. Barbara Taylor, head of Longney primary school, Gloucester, said she was concerned that inspectors had only spent just over an hour looking at key stage 2 maths lessons - and that less experienced inspectors could draw the wrong conclusions as a result.

Bassingbourn would also have liked to share more paperwork with the inspection teams. Mrs Harris said the four-week lead-in had given the "incredibly hard-working" HMIs very little time to absorb all the information the school had provided, with the result that some questions they had asked of senior staff had been "slightly unfocused".

But these were relatively minor points, said Mrs Harris. The school would have been happy with either inspection system, perhaps unsurprisingly given that it emerges in the inspection report as one whose strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.

On balance, though, it favoured the new regime.

Mr Penny said: "The shorter lead-in was welcomed by everyone in the school. With the traditional inspection, staff tend to worry for months about what to improve on."

The non-interventionist spirit of light-touch also suited a grant-maintained school used to planning for its own success, said Mrs Harris.

"Let those schools which are working well continue to do so, and focus your resources where they are perhaps needed more. It's a sensible approach," she added.

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