More feet on the inspection cycle

17th November 1995 at 00:00
Has the Government's strategy of drafting willing heads and deputies as extra inspectors rescued the inspection schedule from collapse? Lucy Hodges reports STORY: The first batch of extra inspectors hired by the Office for Standards in Education to shore up its foundering primary and special school inspection programmes has begun to roll off the production line and into schools.

A total of 173 heads and deputies recruited by OFSTED in September to put the four-year inspection cycle back on course carried out their first inspections last week. They represent another strand - apart from the revised framework for inspections - of OFSTED's attempts to put its house in order and answer critics who say the new, privatised inspection system is in crisis.

It is more than two years since this system replaced the Government-run HM Inspectorate. In that time OFSTED has come in for a barrage of criticism from academics, notably Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University, from chief education officers, including Tim Brighouse of Birmingham, and from teachers.

Another 150 of the new "additional" inspectors are to begin work in the New Year, and yet more in September 1996. Will their recruitment enable OFSTED to meet its inspection targets and ensure that every one of its 20,000 primary and special schools in England is inspected in the next four years?

Chief inspector Chris Woodhead hopes so. "We are catching up on the backlog of inspections that was caused by the problems of the first year," he says. "All things being equal, fingers crossed, I think we have a very good chance of delivering the intended four-year cycle for primary and special, just as we are going to do for secondary."

His cautious optimism is supported by the fact that the primary market for inspections is operating at 12.5 per cent greater capacity than a year ago. That, combined with the AI initiative, means that several hundred new registered inspectors will be available for work in the coming months.

The OFSTED appeal for poachers-turned-gamekeepers - heads and deputies willing to work as inspectors for up to one year - brought an overwhelming response, much to everyone's surprise. Two advertisements in The TES resulted in 1,300 applications for the first tranche of recruits.

The job carries no extra money. Recruits are paid their normal salaries, plus expenses, and may have to travel far from home. But OFSTED believes they will gain from the experience. Having acquired registered inspector status they will be able to operate in the market, carrying out one or two inspections a year, or maybe even becoming full-time agents.

"We believe this is a very valuable piece of in-service training," says HM inspector David Trainor, who is in charge of the AI initiative. "These people are senior managers in primary schools and they will be going back into their schools with a very greatly enhanced perception of primary education."

Needless to say, such enthusiasm is not shared by all. Some local education authorities and governing bodies have been keen on the initiative; others have not. "One or two have been less than positive," Mr Trainor says. One authority, which OFSTED refuses to name, has banned its staff from having anything to do with the AI scheme.

Critics worried that the additional inspectors would be second-rate - people trained in a great hurry to help OFSTED out of a hole. That has not been the case. However, OFSTED has received some complaints about the additional inspectors' work.

A school in Leeds which was failed by a team containing AIs, went on to make "a serious complaint", says Chris Woodhead. He added: "If any school is concerned about the validity of an AI judgment, then HM inspectors will come and corroborate or not, as the case may be. In this particular case, the school said they didn't want a corroboration, so there's not much we can do, if that is the stance. I think the vast majority of schools that have been inspected by AIs are perfectly happy with the process."

HM inspectors have also been telling Chris Woodhead that the AI inspections are working very well. All additional inspectors have the same training as other registered inspectors. All will have done two courses and attended two inspections led by an HMI before they perform any inspecting themselves. In fact, the quality of the AIs is high. There were so many applicants that OFSTED had an embarrassment of riches. It had the pick of more than 1,000 experienced people at the top of the professional tree, men and women who were knowledgeable about primary education and able to make informed judgments about standards.

The new additional inspectors are examining schools for which there have been no tenders. These schools are concentrated mainly in the North and West of England.

The assumption is that these areas have had problems because they are far from where most inspection teams are based. But certain types of schools, small primary schools for example, are being shunned by independent teams on the grounds that they are uneconomic to inspect.

Adequate numbers of primary inspectors were trained, says OFSTED, but many of these newly registered inspectors chose not to do any inspecting. Hence the shortfall. "If you were a headteacher you did the training because it was a wonderful professional development opportunity," says Mr Trainor. "You had a look at it. You said 'Oh that was interesting. I've learned a lot, but for the moment, thanks, I'll go back to be head of my school'." Figures show that, of the 800 inspectors registered initially for primaries, only three-quarters are "active". Moreover, those inspectors are not carrying out many inspections - an average of 1.3 each term, or four a year.

Had those trained inspectors been more active, OFSTED would not have got into its current mess. All of which shows what happens when the market rather than the Government controls the system.

OFSTED has been criticised for failing to follow up its reports of schools, for concentrating on administration rather than learning and for engendering fear among teachers. Just over 100 schools in England and Wales have been judged to be failing by OFSTED and another 10 per cent are thought to have serious weaknesses.

Last week Mr Woodhead antagonised teachers further when he called for 15,000 incompetent teachers to be sacked to raise standards. OFSTED and the profession are now on the brink of war. Does Mr Woodhead think it's a good idea to say these kind of things?

Yes, he says. He wants an honest, robust dialogue about what is wrong. He believes the conferences which OFSTED has been running for heads have highlighted the problem of teacher competence and the difficulty in getting rid of staff who are no good. "But equally I think we have to sing the praises of those schools and those teachers which are doing the outstanding job they are," he adds.

What grade would Chris Woodhead give OFSTED if he had to classify it? "The only wisdom is the wisdom of humility, as TS Eliot told us," says the chief inspector. "I wouldn't tempt fate by giving myself an outstanding grade. Neither would I tempt Professor Wragg. So, what I would say is we are making satisfactory progress."

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