Ofsted must focus on the positive

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
The new inspection regime shows promise, but must not be allowed to fall foul of individual inspectors' foibles, warns Mick Brookes

In 2000, when Ofsted was described as "the Spanish Inquisition" at the National Association of Head Teachers' annual conference, it caused more than a little annoyance. My school recently went through its second inspection. So what was it like for us?

For a start the self-evaluation form, S4, did allow us to describe our school as we saw it. It gave us a platform to sing our praises and balance the negative message coming from our Panda report. We did this using our knowledge of the progress of our children, and our openness and honesty (that I hoped would not be naivety) about future developments. By the time we'd finished, I was proud to be the headteacher of such a great school. So many primary head colleagues appear to downplay the S4; we still appear to suffer from a legacy of lack of self-respect and self-belief.

I waited with some trepidation for the initial meeting with the lead inspector. Get a nit-picking pessimist looking for fault and we could well be in trouble. However, the meeting was challenging but fair and supportive. (When will we rid ourselves of the annual "smack in the mouth" given to schools like ours by the unintelligent information contained in the Panda report? For instance, while we got a D for maths, the same score gave us an A when measured against parental occupation, and improved our English score from C to A*.) But no matter how well the process is teed up, it's the quality of teachinglearning that counts. While few would disagree that this is the most important dynamic affecting pupil progress and well-being, it is still vulnerable to the whim of the nit-picking pessimist. If a team wants to prove that the Panda description is correct, all it needs to do is to pan the teaching and the school is in trouble.

However, our observations were fair, feedback was (mostly) given and confirmed that 80 per cent of our teaching was deemed to be to be good or better. It is clear from national statistics (a point reinforced by our own experience) that it is far easier to achieve higher grades with motivated and high-achieving pupils rather than those demotivated by their failure to compete with their peers in a competitive assessment-driven system.

Apart from the above, the only real negative aspect of the whole experience was the "guess what's in the inspector's head" session about our spiritual, cultural, moral and social development. In summary, the conversation went: Inspector: You should have changed the words and order of your SCMS report, because I recognise its source.

Head: Yes it's the Ofsted training document adapted for our school.

Inspector: But if you had changed those things, I would not have recognised it.

Head: (words to the effect of) Why?

To summarise my experience in current Ofsted style, the new system has the following strengths:

* greater opportunity for schools to influence the outcome of inspection by a shared pre-inspection commentary;

* greater assurance that the team will be balanced, fair and positive;

* a report that praises and supports, rather than condemns and vilifies;

* a balance of observations that ensure individuals are not over-observed;

* a view that the whole curriculum is deemed to be important.

The inspection system needs to:

* refine the performance and assessment data information so that a range of dimensions can be measured;

* continue to ensure consistency between teams by instituting a more informal appeal system to weed out the remaining inquisitors;

* improve the S4 summary by giving schools clearer examples of effective good practice and inviting comment against a measure;

* continue to dispel the belief that it is out to get you.

We need an inspection system - almost this one - but, worryingly, interpretation of the rules appears to put all this at risk. Previously good lessons may now be deemed only satisfactory, and satisfactory lessons are not good enough. So the school collects a label. Surely this cannot be the case.

Mick Brookes is head of Sherwood junior school, Nottinghamshire, and a past president of the National Association of Head Teachers

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