Ofsted's false economy will let you down

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Forget the spin. Ofsted's new regime may be claiming "shorter, sharper inspections", but what it's principally about is saving money: pound;15 million a year, according to chief inspector David Bell. Cheap does not mean better. A school that provides a poor quality of education at low cost does not constitute good value for money.

Those of us who have been inspectors since Ofsted's launch more than a decade ago have seen many changes: the best inspections have moved from describing to explaining what happens in schools. Although staff view an upcoming inspection with trepidation, most find the experience rather less traumatic than its anticipation. That is why the new plan to reduce drastically the notice of inspection is to be welcomed. It should mean an end to the sub-industry of preparation for inspection, although cynics may argue that it will elevate stress levels as nervous schools hold themselves in continuous readiness for the surprise telephone call.

The key change, however, is that the new system means a move away from inspecting schools to merely checking out school self-evaluation. Very much smaller teams - in primary, sometimes just a lone inspector - in school for a maximum of two days will mean little opportunity for external validation and celebration of all that the school does well. Little time will be spent in lessons and gauging the pupils' experiences, and there will be little opportunity to get the input of teaching staff. Inspectors will form hypotheses from the new data sheets and the school's self-evaluation form (if the school has completed one: oddly, there is no compulsion to do so).

They will then spend their limited time checking out the hypotheses and sampling one or two of the school's claims, on the presumption that if those check out as correct, the rest are assumed to be OK.

But data can be confusing. Already, injustices can be done to schools where inept or inexperienced inspectors follow too slavishly what they think the Sats data is telling them. I have inspected schools with Es in the Panda that have turned out to be good schools, and I have put schools with As into special measures. The new summary and contextual value-added Pandas presage an improvement, but inspectors who were too rigid to look beyond the narrow Panda grades are likely to glaze over completely when they see the scattergrams and statistical complexities of the new data sheets.

Under the current system, team inspectors who want to qualify to lead inspections have to go through an extensive system of shortlisting, training and assessment. From September, all inspectors will be equal.

Every one will be deemed equally capable of undertaking the initial analysis, in both primary and secondary schools, of forming hypotheses, of leading a team or flying solo. One of the strengths of the current framework is the recognition that not all evidence should be given equal weight. More credence should be given to the evidence, for example, of direct observation, than to a headteacher's assertions.

Ofsted will deny it, but it seems inevitable that with "shorter, sharper inspections" this hierarchy will be quietly buried. Judgments will be reached on a much thinner evidence base than at present. I hope I am proven wrong, but I fear we may be in for a spate of bland reports that disappoint good schools and flatter those with ineffective but combative heads. How long then will it be before a minister asks why we are spending all this money on reports that tell us nothing?

Selwyn Ward is a registered inspector who has led 60 primary and secondary inspections and taken part in around 200

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