It's sharp, but is it clever?

20th February 2004 at 00:00
New inspections are to be more frequent and focused, but don't show schools the respect they deserve, writes Colin Richards.

In a typical self-congratulatory way, the Office for Standards in Education has launched its proposals on the future of inspection. David Bell (TES, February 13) is to be congratulated on launching the review, even though it is at least five years too late and is hardly the fundamental review he promises. That is probably the full extent of congratulations that are in order. In his own words, will inspection under the proposed arrangements "serve the country as well in its second decade as it did in the first"?

Fundamentally, inspection needs "intelligent inspectors" to provide a sensitive form of school accountability - one which avoids what Onora O'Neill, principal of Newnham college, Cambridge, describes as a system of accountability "distorting the proper aims of professional practice and damaging professional pride and integrity". The proposed arrangements undermine, rather than support, that practice and that integrity.

To contribute to intelligent accountability, inspection has to take due account both of the proper demands made on schools by the Government, parents and the wider society, but also schools' own aims, values and priorities. Neither the current nor the proposed arrangements do this in anything other than a perfunctory way. Of the eight aspects to be considered in new-style reports, only one relates to a summary of the school's own self-assessment. This is scarcely a fulsome endorsement of schools' priorities and professional integrity, especially when the report is to be complemented by "a carefully defined set of performance measures" - reflecting "official" values and priorities.

Unlike the proposals, intelligent inspection also needs to recognise the inevitably subjective and fallible nature of inspection judgments (and of so-called "objective" performance data). There can be no such thing as totally objective, authoritative inspection even by very intelligent inspectors. However, there can be professionally subjective but rigorous inspection which offers inspectors' interpretations as a basis for dialogue with those who have been inspected. The current proposals make no reference to the importance of that dialogue.

David Bell is, however, right to argue that in order to be responsive to the inevitable changes affecting schools, inspections need to be reasonably frequent for all institutions - once every three years is about right.

Inspections also need to be short to avoid overburdening schools.

If short, they have to be focused (rather than Ofsted's word "sharp") - more in the way of a health check rather than a full-body scan and internal investigation. There has to be an irreducible minimum common to every inspection (but not necessarily literacy and numeracy). But if Ofsted is to give due consideration to a school's self-assessment and its own values and priorities, the aspects to be inspected need to be chosen partly by Ofsted and partly by the school itself.

Ofsted is proposing to continue publishing its reports with no public redress for schools. This needs to be replaced by the publication of the school's own self-assessment, the inspectors' commentary on that assessment and, very importantly, the school's response to that commentary - all published by Ofsted itself.

The proposals fail to acknowledge, or provide for, the support schools need after an inspection. They do not, for example, broach the possibility of attaching someone (a fellow head, a local education authority adviser, or someone else of the school's own choosing) to the inspection team, with a brief to work with the school on its action plan, drawing on the Ofsted evidence base for the inspection.

Intelligent inspection also needs to reduce the inevitable stress of an external evaluation. The proposal to reduce drastically the notification period but have inspections more frequently is breathtakingly naive in its belief that this will reduce stress (and bureaucracy). It will in fact compound inspection trauma, with schools remaining in a continuing state of defensive inspection readiness, unless adequate notice is negotiated with schools and teachers feel that inspection is being done with them, rather than to them.

Schools do need to be held accountable (as does Ofsted itself), but in a way which preserves both accountability and humanity, and recognises the complexity, elusiveness and value-laden nature of teaching, learning and inspection. Ofsted's current proposals fall short of this.

New-style inspection may well "serve the country as well in its second decade as it did in its first", but that was, and will be, nowhere near good enough. Children, teachers and parents deserve better - they deserve intelligent, respectful and enabling inspection.

Letters 25

Professor Colin Richards is a former senior HMI

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