Once was enough

6th March 1998 at 00:00
Schools in the Nineties face increasing pressure not only from greater accountability, but also from inspection by the Office for Standards in Education.

Yet we have all survived the first inspection. But brace yourselves - a second one may be just around the corner.

And it is no easier. My school has just been through it; a mere three years and eight months after the first. Almost immediately after the first wave of incredulity faded, the gritty reality of a second inspection began to take over. Sifting through layers of reports and documents, I am impressed by the thoroughness and rigour of what we did in the year following our first inspection.

I track back to prove that what is now embedded in our practice did not arrive by accident; anyone with any understanding knows it does not develop by wishful thinking. They can surely judge our progress by observing it?

But the new arrangements for a second inspection require an account: we need chapter and verse. So we supply 10 sides of detail on issues that inevitably slipped down our priority list two years ago.

In the midst of this, the senior management team also starts on the headteacher's forms. The tedious clerical work is familiar from the last time and we are only part way through it when we get our copy of the PISCI Report for our school. This comes straight off the OFSTED database and gives the new inspection team 40 pages of information about us. Why then are we repeating large parts of it on the head's forms and on various supplementary forms the inspection team has asked for?

We are not the only ones working away in these rather frenzied weeks. We tell the staff that this time there must be less preparatory emphasis on writing policies and schemes of work: we want them to focus on the quality of teaching and learning, and their assessment procedures.

We didn't entirely grasp it the first time, but we know now that the inspection is largely driven by numbers. If we can keep up the scores for every classroom observation we are bound to emerge well on most measures.

The pattern of the inspection is not dissimilar to the first. There are some irritations: we are disappointed that special needs provision is not treated as a separate item in the new framework; there will be no feedback to the head of department, and no section in the final report. We argue against this and win a little ground.

As a community school we also have to ensure that other parts of our provision, outside the school day, are looked at. The inspection seems focused more now on those aspects that can be easily measured on a comparative basis. There is little interest in other parts that make schools distinctive.

This time we get individual feedback on our lessons, but there is no dialogue, little or nothing to point the way to improvement. A degree of cynicism returns. Despite the advice from OFSTED, most of us are told our grades. There is not a single "unsatisfactory" lesson. Yet under this new regime

of individual reporting, how many inspectors will have the nerve to face a session in which they hand out the "unsatisfactory" notices?

The report itself is a shock.

We do not believe that it reflects the verbal feedback. Its authors appear to have retreated from being genuinely impressed to being cautiously prescrip-tive and over-burdened with statistics. It is written in a predominantly flat and featureless style - we are left with Woodhead Grey.

As a "re-inspected" school we must be judged not only on our current performance, but on the progress made since the last one and on our capacity to secure further improvement. I believe that we would have come out well on those criteria, whoever had made the judgment. But if

I turn the mirror the other way and ask how much has this double dose of OFSTED contributed to such movement, I find little evidence that it has helped much at all.

Like all schools we already had our agenda for change and the inspections scarcely affected it. Indeed, they may have delayed some developments. Much energy and valuable teaching time have been lost in unnecessary bureacracy. The whole business may be an irrelevance.

Dennis Brickles is deputy head at Harrogate Granby High School. The views expressed here are his own

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