Keep OFSTED, ditch the chief

25th April 1997 at 01:00
OFSTED gets such a lambasting week after week that thoughts about how an incoming government might reform or replace it never seem to get a look-in.Yet we need some kind of OFSTED, even if we don't need Mr Woodhead. Here's why.

National inspections used to be conducted by Her Majesty's Inspectors, but there were always weaknesses. I can remember going on HMI courses and being astounded by the level of incompetence in front of me. Yet these people had enormous power. They could, and did, routinely go beyond reporting, often promoting personal and group notions about how things should be done. And, because they were inspectors, every whim and fashion they subscribed to had to be treated as gospel. Or else.

There were, of course, good inspectors as well as bad ones, but, because inspections were far less frequent than they are now, not all teachers got to meet both kinds. I can still feel in my bones a damp November day spent in Cambridge with a classics HMI. He was helping a group of primary school teachers make sense of the then new national curriculum, and the whole enterprise was an object lesson in the fostering side of inspection, which we currently yearn for.

The point is that pre-OFSTED there were no agreed inspection criteria. Many years ago, The TES asked an HMI what he used to arrive at his judgments. He replied that he used his antennae! The grotesque mental image makes the point: subjectivism and power make a lethal combination.

Nowadays, classroom inspections are related to national curriculum requiremen ts. That is invaluable. It is true that the national curriculum is over-prescrip tive and overloaded, but that is a battle to be fought elsewhere. When it comes to inspections, rules are a teacher's best friend; if you comply with them, you can't be failed. Well, not so easily.

So, instead of attacking OFSTED at every turn, it is in every teacher's interests to think constructively about reforming it. Here are some suggestions.

That the chief inspector needs to go is obvious. Education deserves some positive messages to replace the negative.

OFSTED must also do something about its fault-finding. I'm all for rules, but I also know that, thanks to a combination of inadequate resources, lack of time, complicated expectations and constantly changing syllabuses, they can't always be adhered to. It can be hugely destructive to spend a career struggling against the odds, only to be rubbished by a collection of self-righteous fly-by-nights. Teachers would have far more confidence in inspections if they knew in advance that judgments would be explicitly balanced by the reporting of circumstances. Inspectors should no longer be able to escape challenge just by asserting the incontrovertibility of "facts".

Then there are inspectors' qualifications. Instinctively and rightly, teachers need to know that they are being judged by people who are up to date, experienced and who know where the shoe pinches. Should that include burned-out early retirement cases? Or inspectors with unsuitable qualifications? When an OFSTED crowd came to turn over the school in which I teach, there was one paper qualification that none of us could recognise.We eventually concluded that the man was an engine driver, and I am afraid that he might as well have been that as anything else.

OFSTED has to be a high priority for Mrs Shephard's successor, as the present hostile and expensive arrangement is damaging morale and recruitment. The principle of rule-governed inspections must be preserved. But the practice needs to be reformed from top to bottom, and on the basis of consultation this time, not more authoritarian imposition.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent

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