Last Word: Feather's ruffled by birdbrains

7th March 1997 at 00:00
I have been invited to a conference being held today in London, but I shall not be going. It is not just the usual high fee (plus VAT) that puts me off. It is the advertising blurb. The conference is called "The High Reliability School", which sounded interesting until I read the details.

"The High Reliability Schools Project is an attempt to move beyond the goal of relatively successful schools" the invitation trills, "towards the creation of schools which are absolutely successful and which have eradicated failure. " I'll have a basinful of failure eradication, squire, pray tell me more. It gets even better.

"Using the latest information from the study of highly-reliable organisations such as air traffic controllers and nuclear power plants and from school effectiveness and school improvement programmes, an innovatory programme has been designed that aims to ensure high-quality educational outcomes for all, in schools which set ambitious targets and which relentlessly push for success."

Now just a minute, sunshine. I know that the "relentless push for success" is in vogue, but nuclear power plants, for goodness' sake? We at Chernobyl High School are a touch dubious about that particular model, as are our colleagues at Three Mile Island County Primary School down the road.

Every time our relentless push for success is about to reach its climax, BANG, 50 megatons of irradiated fall-out land on your dinner register. "It's very worrying. It's very worrying", as our two-headed caretaker is fond of saying.

Even more worrying was newsletter 17, sent out by the Office for Standards in Education to all its "contractors", as school inspection teams are affectionately known. I enjoy reading these newsletters, as they are a great curiosity of the English language. On the surface the language is that of jolly insider banter, with little "nudge-nudge" asides,the sort you might get in a school magazine. There the similarity ends, for the rest of it is in incomprehensible market-speak.

Newsletter 17 begins with a message from OFSTED's head of contracts, Mr Silicon Chip, written in characteristic style: "Perhaps one of the most significant items of news is that the AI initiative is to come to an end in August 1997. There has been a significant growth in the market, helped by the migration of AIs into the market-place."

What the hell is Mr Chip on about? What birds have migrated into the market square? Are we talking about inspectors here, or budgerigars?

For those not fluent in OFSTEDspeak, the term AI does not mean artificial insemination. It stands for additional inspector, headteachers who were pulled out of their school for a year to supplement school inspection teams. Now many of them have been found to be surplus to requirements, so they have simply been sent back to their school half-way through the year. Perhaps it was all part of OFSTED's relentless push for success, presumably based on the nuclear fission model - if it overheats, blow it up.

"Hello. It's little me again," the heads had to say to the school's acting head and staff as they reappeared in their schools several months before expected. Some of the more embarrassed obviously decided to migrate.Presumably they hung a sign on their door, saying not "Gone fishing", but rather "Migrated to the market-place. Signed, Tweetie Pie".

It calls for a rewrite of the celebrated rhyme:

Oh the Grand Old OFSTED boss, He signed ten thousand men, He marched them up to the top of the hill And he marched them down again. And when they were up, they were up, So OFSTED at last did the sums, And when they were only half-way through They were kicked out on their bums.

Getting rid of the additional inspectors, or indeed, training them and then finding they migrate to the market-place, may turn out to be another nuclear disaster. It confirms that school inspection should become a public service once more instead of a money-making business.

Local authorities are coming under greater financial pressures, so there is an increasing reluctance to take part in inspections as money gets tighter. This is for several reasons.

First, a market is a market. It costs the local authority about #163;400 or so a day for each inspector it employs. To be successful, inspection contractors have to bid nearer #163;200 per day. It does not take a financial genius to work out the consequences of losing #163;200 per inspector per day, especially when many are now inspecting outside their own local authority. It is a "Hello Official Receiver" strategy.

Furthermore, schools are increasingly critical of not seeing much of their own local inspectors nowadays, hardly surprising when many are busy OFSTEDding around the land. Schools feeling under pressure need all the local help and support they can get.

Meanwhile, back in newsletter 17, Mr Chip is blowing a gasket after discovering that some naughty inspection teams have won contracts and then had to advertise for team members, or get them through what one OFSTED official called "dating agencies". I know inspection seems to be all about finding a bird nowadays, but this is ridiculous.

"In plain language, I will not look kindly upon those who make commitments without adequate planning. To do otherwise would be to bring into question their quality assurance procedures," Mr Chip writes angrily.

Who's been a naughty boy then? Pretty Polly?

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