Partnership for improvement

13th November 1998 at 00:00

Surrey County Council's inspection by the Office for Standards in Education took place in comparatively happy circumstances. For one thing, Surrey had been chosen because results in its schools were particularly good. For another, it was one of the first inspections under the new framework and started at a few weeks' notice, so there were good reasons for preparation to be less than perfect.

Paul Gray, the county's director of education, extended the brief of Anna Wright, the senior officer who was working on a draft educational development plan, to manage the authority's side of the inspection. She masterminded the production of eight crates of documents for the inspectors. All were produced to a common format, with summaries and cross-references. So, not only was the paperwork well organised for the inspectors but, perhaps more important, useful to the local education authority.

A lot of data was already available. Surrey had been conducting baseline tests in primary schools for several years and had a draft educational development plan.

Forty schools were chosen for visits. One or two inspectors spent one or two days at each, interviewing senior staff and governors and observing the teaching to assess improvements since the school's individual Ofsted reports.

The authority gave the schools two days of supply cover to help with the administrative load and to let headteachers attend two half-day meetings, one organised by the inspection team and one by the council. Council officers also provided each school with details of all the support they had received from the authority - advisers' visits, special needs support, in-service training and the like.

Paul Gray admits that the authority's meeting with the headteachers might lay it open to accusations of "coaching", but says the schools were free to criticise any of the authority's interventions. Heads agreed it was easy to forget where some successful ideas for their schools' improvements had originated and the aide-memoire was useful.

Anna Wright believes the inspection was no bad thing: "It helped people to focus on what they are really trying to achieve and ask the question, when they walk out of a school, 'Am I confident that what I have just done will make some difference?' "

She also says the process helped schools to understand that some need more help and support from the local education authority than others. "Before, there tended to be a culture that believed resources should be shared around equally."

In Surrey there has been much praise for the professionalism, quality and tact of the inspection team. One head talked of the pleasure of having off-the-record consultancy from "real, grown-up HMIs", and others said the HMIs were in a different league from school contract inspection teams - infinitely more relaxed and astute and forthcoming.

Inevitably, the preparation and paperwork for OfsteD took a lot of time and teachers found the idea of more inspection threatening, even though it was not the schools that were the subject of inspection. One primary head thought it was strange that teachers are the only people who are inspected doing their job: everyone else is simply interviewed.

The heads were very supportive of the authority, but welcomed the chance to raise issues of concern, such as the way the inclusion policy for children with difficult special needs works in practice, and the effects of the tension in County Hall between right-wing councillors and professional officers. The inspection team were thought to be tiptoeing around tricky political territory - which demonstrated the difficulties caused by an inspection process that does not routinely include the authority's elected policy-makers.

On the politicians' side, there were many complaints about their exclusion from the process when the lead inspector came to report back to the education committee.

The report was very good. It starts: "There is much that Surrey LEA does very well; it has many strengths and relatively few weaknesses." Inspectors thought the authority needed to be clearer about the basis of its partnership with schools and to define how it planned to intervene where schools were causing concern.

Paul Gray says: "It was very useful to have a report saying to everyone - parents, headteachers, politicians - that our education service is something to be proud of."

Surrey's tips for dulling the pain

* Appoint a senior officer to co-ordinate the inspection and link with the HM Inspectorate team.

* Offer schools being inspected some extra supply cover.

* Provide information in a commonformat with summaries and cross-referencing. (This is also useful to the authority itself in clarifying links between services.) * Keep people briefed. Considerproviding schools being visited with information about all the LEA support they have had. (It is easy to forget where ideas and policies originated.) * Pay attention to the informal, interim report given at the end of the initial review. Point out work in progress and new developments. A lot of the early judgments may appear in the final report, when it is too late for the authority to challenge them, even if they are out of date.

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