Mark II: OFSTED remixed

24th November 2000 at 00:00
The reformed service should offer high-quality care for ailing schools.

David Reynolds continues the debate over the future of school inspection

NOW for Office for Standards in Education mark two. Chris Woodhead was appointed chief inspector by promising to represent the interests of educational consumers. His OFSTED justifiably highlighted variability between schools and teachers, and rightly led the way in focusing on education as experienced by pupils in classrooms.

Now, though, it is time for OFSTED to change, for a number of reasons. The muscularity of its approach is likely to have had its effects by now and has little left to give. Its mechanisms are simplistic: choose a small number of things, define them broadly (for example, "good lesson planning" or "good subject knowledge") and inspect to see if they are present. Do this using a one-size-fits-all definition of good practice that is the same whether the schools are in Woking or Workington. This is not the complex science of teaching and schooling that we need.

Happily, the need to change OFSTED procedures coincides with an opportunity to do so in the next few years, since the quality control functions that have been its focus are increasingly being performed in other ways.

Firstly, schools exist in increasingly complex markets in which parental choice impacts on schools. Parents are increasingly becoming quality controllers.

Secondly, the arrival from 2002 of value-added performance data will be a further mechanism of quality control. It is likely that these more valid measures of performance will increasingly become the standard against which schools are measured - not OFSTED judgments.

Thirdly, the inspector's traditional focus on school processes will be less relevant. What will matter is whether a school adds value in the league tables, not whether its processes pass any OFSTED test of educational political correctness.

Since the market and the value-added data will help with quality control, OFSTED can broaden itself into a quality management system in which schools' capacity to review and improve themselves becomes the focus. Schools' quality assurance mechanisms, improvement planning, and capacity to use data to become intelligent organisations could all become the focus of OFSTED's attention.

There is no reason why its audits of classroom experience and school management cannot remain cenral - along with the value-added results. But there is every reason to assess whether a school has the capacity to make itself better in future, in addition to judging how good it is at present.

OFSTED should go even further. If we go to the surgery, the doctor does not only audit and diagnose, he or she will advise; find others, such as consultants, who will help if necessary; and will generally attempt to remedy any problems. No one thinks doctors are soft or weak because they try to help. By contrast, OFSTED refuses to try to help lame schools walk, believing that the way to improve them is to tell them how lame they are, and then broadcast the verdict for good measure. A much more sensible way is to help schools walk by telling them how to walk, but there is evidence that this is not happening.

Schools in possession of good practice do not seem keen to tell other schools their secrets. Local authority advisers and inspectors who could help disseminate this knowledge have been hamstrung by financial pressures facing local authorities. Universities and colleges don't have the capacity or, for that matter, the desire to improve 25,000 English schools.

OFSTED could do this. It could ensure that modern technology is used to provide schools with practical knowledge and academic research in the areas where school audit and review shows they are needed. It could maintain databases of schools that have useful methods and characteristics, and "buddy" schools together. It could maintain detailed registers of consultants, organisations, helplines, learning resources, books, articles and papers - of anything that might help schools improve.

OFSTED reaches all corners of our education provision. It is high profile and well resourced. It could perform the traditional function of school audit and review, as well as assessing schools' capacity to manage themselves.

It could offer help where it was needed. It could become the integrated quality assurance, review and improvement system that is standard practice in well managed sectors of industry and commerce. It could continue to champion the rights of parents and children to have quality schools, and the rights of the teaching profession to have high-quality support.

It could be a very effective and, for a change, popular OFSTED: Mark Two.

David Reynolds is professor of school effectiveness at the University of Exeter

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