Ofsted with a smile

10th October 2003 at 01:00
After the grim Woodhead years, the current chief inspector is bringing dignity and humour to a once loathed organisation. Wendy Wallace meets David Bell

Dad, all the teachers know my name," reports a little girl after just one week at her new school. Does she have an elder sibling at the school? Is one of her parents a teacher there? No, her father is David Bell, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools. And Mr Bell himself is telling the story as an ice-breaker to an audience of more than 100 secondary heads, teachers and local authority officers.

He's top of the bill at a new teaching and learning think-in - the first of what organisers hope will become an annual event - at St Thomas More secondary school in Blaydon, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Mr Bell, in an accent that is pure Billy Connolly but in a style more akin to a Calvinist preacher, launches his report on leadership and management in schools. "You may recall that in my last annual report I asked, 'Is satisfactory teaching good enough?'." The former primary teacher then delivers what is, in effect, a masterclass on teaching and learning.

The audience, from all over the north-east, warm to Mr Bell. In Newcastle, where he was director of education from 1996 to 2000, he is remembered fondly for his imaginative leadership, most notably for filling the Telewest arena with a staff training day for every Newcastle teacher. "It was such a bold thing to do," recalls one.

Headteachers found him inspiring, especially after having endured a succession of directors of education in the early 1990s. Many were disappointed when he quit Newcastle for the south, particularly as his new job, chief executive at Bedfordshire county council, was outside education.

So his appointment as chief inspector by the then education secretary Estelle Morris in January 2002 has been a popular choice. His style of leadership is described as "refreshing". Since taking up the post in May 2002, David Bell is widely acknowledged to be doing a good job, or even, to use the vernacular of his service, an excellent one. Which is just as well, because his tenure may be a long one.

"He's the first primary teacher to hold the post, the youngest, and likely to be the longest-serving," says John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association, author of a book on the history of the inspection service.

Until the appointment of Chris Woodhead in 1992, the chief inspector was selected from among senior inspectors likely to have been out of the classroom for some time. But Mr Bell, at only 44, could be in for the long haul.

He appears to relish the pound;115,000-a-year post; indeed, he sometimes has the air of a man who can scarcely believe his luck.

The inspection service is regaining the respect it forfeited during the Woodhead era. That process began under Mike Tomlinson and has been consolidated by David Bell, who, like his predecessor, is committed to objectivity. "The main pitfall is Ofsted straying outside its remit and speaking without the basis of the evidence," says Mr Tomlinson.

Mr Bell may have teetered on the edge of the pit recently when he told the Sunday Telegraph that "disrupted and dishevelled" upbringings left children ill-prepared for education. His comments, which offended some parents'

organisations, were based on conversations with primary heads rather than inspection evidence.

The rehabilitation of Ofsted is partly down to the new chief inspector's personal qualities. In Ofsted's Kingsway offices in central London, Mr Bell's appetite for work is legendary. Those arriving at 8.30am are likely to find a stream of emails, sent from his top-floor office earlier in the morning.

Outside the organisation, educationists discover that when they call to discuss a report with him, he has already read and digested it. "His knowledge is almost frightening," says one. "He works hard on mastering a brief." Colleagues cite a readiness to listen to new ideas. David Taylor, head of inspection at Ofsted, who has a 25-year history with the service, having worked for seven chief inspectors, is the carrier of the institutional memory.

"Mr Bell took over an organisation ripe for a change of direction, and gained credibility by his understanding of the work and commitment to Ofsted's evidence as the basis on which he speaks and acts," says Mr Taylor. "Meetings he chairs are always ones in which you can debate ideas openly." But not ones, adds Mr Taylor, in which it is advisable to nod off.

"The pace is brisk."

David Bell is a willing listener. On a visit to Queen Elizabeth high school, in Hexham, Northumberland (where his own two daughters would have gone if the family had stayed in the north-east), he negotiates conversations about specialist status, Year 12 workload and why geography has become the poor relation of history.

Suddenly, he drops to one knee - like the previous two chief inspectors, he's over 6ft tall - at a desk to listen to Year 9 students talk about learning German. "Excellent," he proclaims, on hearing that the pair plan to drop the language in favour of social care and catering courses in Year 10. "I prefer youngsters pursuing courses and options they will, first of all, enjoy and, second, succeed in." A plea for more resources from a member of the music department is less sympathetically heard. "You're lobbying the wrong person, man," he tells the music teacher.

Ofsted's revamped inspection handbook was introduced this autumn. The new system increases the emphasis on self-evaluation; successful schools - as judged by previous inspection reports, Panda data and benchmarked performance - will be inspected only every six years. Inspectors will canvass children's views on their schools, look at out-of-hours provision and diversification of the curriculum, and focus more on inclusion.

Self-evaluation, says Mr Bell, is more rigorous than present methods. It is welcomed by most of the profession, although some union leaders would like to see Ofsted go further. John Dunford would like the organisation to become "part of a quality assurance model, building on school self-evaluation, rather than a quality control model that fails to differentiate between institutions at different levels of development".

The recent recruitment of 50 extra inspectors, boosting their numbers to 260, should increase Ofsted's intelligence-gathering powers and credibility. Her Majesty's inspectors will lead 15 school inspections this year, in a bid to encourage integration between contracted inspectors and Ofsted.

Teachers and heads have not been spared criticism in Mr Bell's first 16 months. As well as questioning whether the 26 per cent of "satisfactory" teaching is good enough, he has highlighted poor leadership and management in a minority of schools, said that boys can achieve - where teaching is "imaginative, sensitive and focused" - and noted shortcomings in the delivery of citizenship and new vocational GCSEs, and the poor quality of some alternative provision at key stage 4.

The Government has not escaped either. Mr Bell has warned that a "myopic focus" on targets can reduce achievement, and, more recently, highlighted the scandal of 10,000 "missing" 15-year-olds, unaccounted for on education rolls in England. Inspectors found a lack of coherent direction in education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds and failings in the Government's key stage 3 strategy.

David Bell has been careful to keep out of the funding row, which he concedes has dented confidence. "It is difficult for inspection reports to identify a direct link between the amount of money in a school budget and the standards achieved by the pupils," he says, brushing off the suggestion from some heads that a cash shortage might be taken into account during inspections. "Do we then take into account that the accommodation is not up to up to scratch, or that the governors aren't supporting the school as well as they could?"

Seen as a deft political operator, he meets Education Secretary Charles Clarke and other ministers and officials once a week. "Very productive, very good meetings," he says. "I never feel cold-shouldered because Ofsted has said something." Under his leadership the organisation seems suitably distanced from government and the profession, without being at loggerheads with either.

The bulk of Ofsted's work is carried out to a government remit, but allowance is made for the organisation to follow what David Taylor terms "our own antennae". For example, the service might revisit a 10-year-old report on "access and opportunity" to see what progress has been made for disadvantaged pupils.

Mr Bell's commitment to equal opportunities appears sincere. The son of a railway worker, he is the only chief inspector to have attended a comprehensive, Knightswood, in Glasgow. He was also the first in his family to go to university, Glasgow, where he studied history and philosophy.

He started out as a primary school teacher, and was deputy head of Powers Hall junior school, in Witham, Essex, by the age of 26. He remembers his time there with affection, especially the characters in class 3F (See Friday magazine, September 19, 2003) and the "pre-national curriculum" projects they had fun with. He is visiting the school next week (see box, right). He became head of Kingston primary in Benfleet, Essex, at 28.

Despite Mr Bell's personal good standing, he is under pressure to demonstrate that Ofsted provides value for money. Spending on the organisation has doubled over the past two years and will rise to more than pound;200 million next year. Doubts are reportedly being aired by senior civil servants, with the DfES's director general of schools telling grammar heads that inspection is "seriously expensive".

Another shot across the bow came from the University of Newcastle, where long-term research on 3,000 secondary schools found that inspections appeared to depress results rather than raise attainment. However, extra responsibilities for early years and childcare, as well as further education, are proof of government confidence in the institution.

Married to Louise, a classroom assistant, David Bell is now settled in Bedfordshire, where his two daughters, Shona (11) and Laura (14), are at middle and upper schools. Cartilage problems have put paid his hobby of running on temporary hold, and his packed schedule leaves little time for the Scottish country dancing he says he also enjoys.

But the energy he devotes to his job is undiminished. It isn't just the staffrooms of his daughters' schools where the name David Bell is causing a stir.

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