I've seen the dark lord's lighter side

11th January 2013 at 00:00
Whisper it, but Roger Pope has joined Ofsted - and he's been pleasantly surprised

I am going to come out of the closet and make a public confession before I am outed. None of my colleagues will ever buy me a drink again. I will be a pariah, condemned to the cold wilderness of the water cooler while everyone else is enveloped in the warm haze of coffee-time chatter. I am training to become an Ofsted inspector. I am going over to the dark side.

Ofsted has teamed up with the National College for School Leadership to train national leaders of education (NLEs) as inspectors. These are heads who have been designated as NLEs because they lead outstanding schools and have a track record of supporting schools in challenging circumstances.

There are two main hopes for the scheme. First, that boosting the number of serving heads in inspection teams will increase the credibility of the process. Second, that inspectors have a privileged insight into what works to catalyse success - and what does not. The involvement of serving heads should help to spread the best knowledge around the system.

Sir Michael Wilshaw has a reputation among teachers that makes Moriarty look whiter than a Persil advert - given the choice of a night out with Her Majesty's Chief Inspector or Voldemort, teachers would plump for a pint with the dark lord every time.

Yet this scheme shows there is a key difference between Wilshaw and Chris Woodhead, another chief inspector who doubled as the devil incarnate. Whereas Woodhead seemed to believe that simply telling teachers they were bad would make them get better, Wilshaw is taking Ofsted in a new direction.

While insisting on rigorous policing of high standards, he is additionally steering the organisation into school improvement. Inspectors are going to be spending more time supporting schools to improve rather than just beating them up, and the involvement of serving heads is intended to complement this process. Maybe Ofsted will no longer be the bad guys.

No doubt some teachers will still view inspectors as a collection of psychopaths, sadists and the barely competent. Yet I have been pleasantly surprised by the experience of working with teams on the inside. Yes, the data still rule supreme and a run of lacklustre results is always going to cause problems for a school. Nevertheless, the inspectors try desperately hard to find evidence to bump the grades up to the highest possible levels. There is a great deal of emotional intelligence in the process, with teachers dealt with sensitively during feedback and every opportunity given during meetings for the leadership team to put forward all the positive pieces of evidence they can.

Inspection has been with us for many years; a dip into the logbook of Kingsbridge Grammar School provides a graphic illustration of this. The head's entry for 19 April 1909 records the inspection report of HMI Cowie. It runs to a full 14 lines and begins: "The school deserves praise for good discipline, industry and progress." That's it on academic standards. The rest is about how the poor head has to teach a class of 40 boys and the bad ventilation of the classrooms. Halcyon days!

The accountability stakes are stratospherically higher now, but try whingeing about that to anyone in business, industry, politics or the media. The ability to crunch an infinite amount of data in an infinitely varied number of ways, and the right of the public to have access to that data almost instantaneously, has increased accountability for us all.

I feel desperately sad for the schools for whom inspection goes wrong, and for the heads who pay with their jobs or, in some cases, even their lives. Nevertheless, inspection is with us and will not be going away. I'm just glad we have a chief inspector who is giving us the chance to help shape it from the inside.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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