Ofsted off the hook;Books;Book of the week

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
AN INSPECTOR CALLS: OFSTED AND ITS EFFECT ON SCHOOL STANDARDS. Edited by Cedric Cullingford. Kogan Page. pound;14.99.

After five years of controversy, an objective, informed report on OFSTED is vital. John Dunford is still waiting.

The preface to this book claims that its contributions are empirical, its evidence objective, and its presentation of the facts neutral. Apart from one chapter by former primary headteacher David Winkley, each chapter is written by one or two university lecturers, reporting the results of their research on inspection by the Office for Standards in Education. All relate to school inspection, except for the final chapter on the inspection of initial teacher education.

Some of the book is interesting and some of the research sheds light on OFSTED inspections, but much is of poor quality, with small samples and weak conclusions. The book is a poor advertisement for education academics; it rarely lives up to its claims of empiricism and objectivity. Robin Alexander's chapter is simply a repeat of his evidence to the House of Commons select committee investigation of OFSTED - without the paragraph numbering, executive summary and conclusion. David Winkley's essay is interesting, but refers only briefly to a survey conducted by the National Primary Centre, which Winkley founded. Gerran Thomas merely outlines the story of OFSTED's creation, and then discusses the results of a survey on inspection in Wales. W Norton Grubb produces no empirical evidence, except to report on his visits to a few recently inspected schools.

Some chapters are of considerably more value. Maurice Kogan and Margaret Maden summarise their Joseph Rowntree-funded research project for OFSTIN (the Office for Standards in Inspection). They calculate the cost of a primary school inspection as pound;26,000 (including pound;11,500 school costs). Their comparative figures for secondary schools are pound;65,000 and pound;40,000.

But nowhere in the book is there a clear cost-benefit analysis of OFSTED inspections, and, 30 pages later, Winkley misrepresents Kogan and Maden's figures. The Rowntree study report reflected that governors and parents feel that they benefit from OFSTED reports. Teachers, while accepting the need for inspection, criticise OFSTED, in contrast with the absence of complaints about other public inspectorates such as district auditors or the Audit Commission. This chapter, at least, is a good, balanced account of its research findings.

Many people will already be familiar with the Rowntree research, published less than a year ago, and they will also have read Carol Fitz-Gibbon's trenchant and persuasive criticisms of OFSTED's research methods, reported at the start of her chapter in this book. She goes on to report the results of an interesting survey of headteachers, which confirmed their lack of confidence in the validity and reliability of the judgments of OFSTED inspectors.

Fitz-Gibbon's research also addressed the relationship between schools with a high proportion of free school meals and inspection ratings. Ever since school inspection reports have been published, schools in disadvantaged areas have received a disproportionately large number of poor reports, often where the evidence suggests that the school is doing well under difficult circumstances.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate, as Fitz-Gibbon reminds us, seemed unable to recognise good teaching in a difficult context. OFSTED should be able to do better. Fitz-Gibbon also found a strong correlation between the amount spent in buying pre-inspection help and the school's inspection rating. Schools which failed had had little or no pre-inspection help.

The 11 chapters here are given neither the introduction nor the conclusion which they so clearly need. Neither makes any attempt to draw together the disparate chapters, and the conclusion is largely a trite satire on OFSTED.

The weak and rather superficial paragraphs which follow the satire fail to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of OFSTED inspections, and they do not outline proposals for improvements in the system.

Poor proof-reading has led to many irritating errors. Apart from the references at the end of each chapter, there is no comprehensive bibliography of the growing literature on OFSTED. After five years of claims and counter-claims, of debate and controversy, it is surely time, not only for a bibliography, but for a more thorough evaluation of OFSTED's work.

Few would deny that it has brought benefits, such as a regular inspection cycle, clear criteria for judging the performance of schools and teachers, and an increase in the information available to parents. OFSTED's critics point to the excessive and largely unnecessary stress created by the inspection, the poor quality of some inspectors, the lack of consistency of judgments, and the effect of the highly politicised leadership of OFSTED by the chief inspector.

But a review is not the place for a full list of benefits and criticisms. This is a task which could, and should, have been fulfilled by a book of more than 200 pages. Perhaps it is too early in the life of OFSTED to expect such a definitive work, but it is surely reasonable to expect some worthwhile interim conclusions. We shall have to wait longer for such a book to appear.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. His 'HMI since 1944: standards bearers or turbulent priests?' is published by Woburn Press.

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