Ofsted, inspect thyself

4th February 2005 at 00:00
After a series of high-profile and embarrassing blunders, can the inspection service regain teachers' confidence? Jon Slater reports

David got caught copying, Michael used the wrong research and Tusha's grammar let her down.

Typical mistakes by pupils you might think, but you would be wrong. Far from being lazy or struggling pupils, David, Michael and Tusha were inspectors.

And they are not the only inspectors to be shamed in public recently - the past 12 months have brought a string of headlines exposing inspectors fallibility.

"Ofsted says sorry to school" screamed the front page of the Daily Telegraph in April when it was revealed that Banham primary in Norfolk had been wrongly judged to have serious weaknesses.

Just days later, the inspectorate was at it again, apologising for publishing a report on Broadmead nursery and infants in Croydon, south London, that was full of grammatical errors.

As a result, public scrutiny of inspectors' judgements has been at its most intense since the days when Chris Woodhead was in charge of the Office for Standards in Education.

Stories of heads of failing schools becoming inspectors and of inspectors continuing to work despite serious complaints against them further undermined schools' confidence in the people who judge them.

Critics warned that these high-profile cases were symptomatic of wider problems with school inspections - reflected in unexpected increases during 20023 in the number of schools judged to be failing.

Unsurprisingly chief inspector David Bell and colleagues at Ofsted insist that the headlines do not tell the full story.

They point out that a survey of schools carried out last term found 92 per cent of heads were satisfied with their inspection experience.

But Mr Bell has also admitted there were problems with the implementation of a new inspection framework in September 2003. Instead of focusing on both strengths and weaknesses, inspectors were concentrating on the negative aspects of schools' self-evaluations. The number of schools judged to be failing has nevertheless continued to rise - up 30 per cent to 213 last year. Mr Bell insists the increase is the result of more rigorous inspection.

In May, Mr Bell warned inspectors that schools' complaints were up and said that this suggested they were not getting "the balance of judgements quite right".

During 2003-4, 60 schools made formal complaints about inspections up from 52 a year earlier and school satisfaction with inspections was just 87 per cent.

John Dunford, Secondary Heads Association general secretary, believes David Bell's intervention was a turning point and that schools' concerns have since diminished.

But inspectors who have finally mastered the latest framework will be given little chance to rest on their laurels. Yet another new framework will be introduced in September if Parliament approves the Education Bill currently passing through the House of Lords.

So far, attention has focused on the fact that the changes will result in schools being inspected more frequently - every three years instead of up to six at present - and that schools will be given just a few days' notice rather than up to 10 weeks of inspectors' arrival.

Unions have mostly welcomed the proposed new framework and its greater reliance on schools' assessment of themselves. But some teachers' leaders are nervous that more self-evaluation may once again lead inspectors to focus on the negatives and an increase in schools wrongly judged to be failing.

In addition, within the past two weeks, Mr Bell has warned that the new framework will mean still higher expectations of schools. In addition Ofsted has itself raised concerns with the DfES about how many schools are properly prepared for the new framework.

HMIs fear that schools with traditional "top-down" management structures are ill-equipped to provide the detailed picture of their performance that the new 38-page self-evaluation form will reqire.

What's more, the problems with inspections revealed in many of the high-profile cases recently highlighted in the press will not be solved by self-evaluation. Grammatical errors, the copying of other schools' reports and the use of the wrong data to make judgements about a school suggest deeper flaws in the system.

Critics have suggested that "arrogant" inspectors have become prone to mistakes or that the quality of Ofsted teams is just not up to scratch.

John Bangs, National Union of Teachers' head of education, rejects both suggestions, arguing instead that market forces are to blame. "Most inspectors are genuinely doing the best they can but there are too many inspectors chasing too few jobs. This means the price goes down forcing inspectors to cut corners to make the work pay."

From September this will change. Most school inspections will be led by an HMI rather than a contracted registered inspector and reports will become the reponsibility of Ofsted instead of the private contractors who provide the inspectors. Contracted inspectors will no longer need to register with Ofsted in order to gain work.

The presence of an HMI should help ensure that hard-pressed contracted inspectors are not tempted to "cut and paste" material from other schools'


Making Ofsted responsible for the publication of inspection reports will, it is hoped, improve quality control and increase the speed with which mistakes are corrected. And the abolition of a register of inspectors is intended to make it easier to get rid of bad apples. Problems will go straight to Ofsted instead of to the contractors. Under the current system, even inspectors who have been found to have committeed serious errors such as copying from other reports can continue inspecting until they are formally deregistered.

But critics worry some of the reforms will have a negative impact. There are worries that the quality of contracted inspectors will fall if they no longer have to meet registration standards.

And heads have expressed concern that the new "light-touch" regime means small schools could be condemned on the say-so of a single inspector.

Ofsted's stated desire to ensure reports are delivered quickly to parents has led to fears that schools may not have the chance to correct mistakes before publication. Any problems with the new system will become clearer after it is introduced. But paradoxically, a rise in the number of complaints may not be cause for concern but rather a sign that the system is working well.

At a basic level, more inspections is likely to lead to more complaints.

From September, the inspectorate expects to carry out 7,500 inspections each year - up from 4,452 in 200304. At the current 92-per-cent satisfaction rate, that will leave 600 schools a year unhappy.

But even among Ofsted's critics there is a feeling that the recent bad publicity is as much a result of a greater willingness by schools to publicly challenge Ofsted's findings as it is a sign of new problems in the inspection system.

The new system is likely to encourage rather than discourage school complaints.

Under the current system contractors are schools' first point of contact for complaints against inspectors.

Mr Bangs argues that they have acted as a buffer between Ofsted and schools. "Contractors have done a good job in blocking complaints to Ofsted," he said.

But from September, complaints not resolved by the inspectors themselves will be referred straight to Ofsted.

In an effort to stem the flow of formal complaints, the inspectorate is introducing a new helpline for schools with concerns about their inspections.

But despite those efforts and broad support for new inspection system, Mr Bell should be bracing himself for a bigger postbag and a few more negative headlines.

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