Ouch! Ofsted will soon be ripping my toenails out

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
The 'informal consultation' document on inspections has made Graham Jones wary of chiropodists

It's now inevitable: Ofsted will be the lead body on college inspections. In fact, in terms of its inevitability, it is up there with death and taxes, but without the popularity of those two inescapables of life.

Colleges have received a joint communique - an "informal consultation" - on the new post-16 inspections, signed by no fewer than three chief inspectors - from Ofsted, the Training Standards Council and the FEFC. If this is informality, heaven preserve us when it gets serious.

And we know the inspectors are trying to help because they tell us so in the preface, where they also promise fresh thinking about the nature of their work. You will understand this is not the sort of assistance that is optional - this is an offer you can't refuse. In other words, this is not a consultation about whether or not standards will be raised by having our collective toenails painfully extracted regularly; nor is it a consultation about who should perform the operation. All we in colleges can comment on is the style of the extraction and the underlying principles governing its conduct, if you follow my metaphor.

Is there anything in this document which should worry us? Apart from the fact that publicly reported inspections have closed some colleges, led to suspensions and sackings of principals, produced clear evidence of stress in staff, contributed to declining enrolment figures, distracted staff from teaching and caused dips in examination results, been hugely expensive and failed to show any connection between their activities and improved performance.

Well, in fact, there isn't. Given that we are now all veterans of years of scrutiny and having our dirty linen hung out for public view, this document looks bland beyond belief. Where is the evidence of fresh thinking? For example, here is my executive summary of section 4 on how inspections are carried out:

Inspectors should understand how inspections work and have experience of the subjects they are inspecting. Before inspections they should tell the victims what they are in for, and afterwards let them know the worst before the report is published. Evidence for inspectors' judgments should be sought from people connected with the institution. College staff should not be kept in the dark about wat is going on during the inspection.

Inspectors should give the reasons behind their judgments and ensure they have enough evidence to support them.

Radical stuff, eh? In fact, the whole document fails the latest Graham Jones test: the theory of inverted denotation. This states that a statement is meaningless if its direct opposite is clearly absurd.

Many people think it applies to almost anything Tony Blair says. For example, the Prime Minister on the NHS: "We must ensure that the health service has the funds and the staff it needs to provide proper health care for all the people, all of the time."

The Jones inverted denotation theory asks what the alternative to this bold policy is. Which turns out to be ensuring that the health service is so badly funded and staffed that it can provide care only for some people some of the time. By this test, the original statement is utterly meaningless.

I invite you to apply the same test to two examples from the consultation document: "Inspectors should be impartial and objective in their evaluations and report honestly and fairly." A novel concept that. Or is there some tacit acknowledgement here that not everything has been straight in the past?

Try the second: "Communication of findings should be clear, well-argued and based convincingly on evidence gathered before and during the inspection."

You might ask how findings could be based on evidence gathered after the painful process has finished.

Other fresh thinking can be seen in the agonising over whether to increase the inspectors' grading scale from five points to seven points. How you answer depends, I suppose, on how long you want your neck to be stretched after you've been hanged.

My answer is based on a notion that provision has to be good for it to be satisfactory. I would have only two grades: good and not good enough. In the belief that inspections raise standards, I would insist on reinspecting anything that was not good enough every four weeks until it was.

If you believe that external, classroom-based inspection improves standards, then you should respond to this consultation - and good luck to you next time it's your turn to have your toenails pulled; if you don't, you could try writing to the three chiropodists-in-chief to tell them so.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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