Peers in perspective

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Two days of training mean that school inspections will never be the same again for Geoff Brookes

I have just finished training as a peer assessor. It is an interesting role. I shall be sent to a school similar to my own to join an inspection team. My job will be to bring a perspective to the Estyn team that reflects daily life in a school. There were quite a few of us being trained and we were all convinced that the idea was a good one.

Peer assessors should have an understanding of issues that similar schools are facing. Inspections will be supportive; expectations and judgements will be anchored to reality. It is a simple idea that will change how we feel about the grey army of inspectors stealing our places in the school car park. We can no longer see it as an imposition designed to foster heartbreak and tears. We can be part of it all. And we should be.

Being a peer assessor requires some investment from your own school. You will be released to join a team, probably once a year. There is no cover provided and the peer assessor receives no fee. So technically your school will be funding your involvement. But as a staff development activity, it should be a highly influential and productive one. And if your school wants the benefits of the scheme, then surely it is sensible to invest in it too?

A peer assessor is expected to act and behave as an inspector. You will watch lessons and talk to teachers. You will contribute to meetings and to the judgements made, but you do not write any of the inspection report. As the system is refined and developed, this course may well become the first part of the training towards becoming a fully-fledged inspector.

The two days of training were thorough and took us through Estyn's inspection framework. Suddenly, we were part of it. It would be wrong to say that we owned the inspection framework: it still represents external quality assurance. But classroom teachers and managers are not excluded from it, and Estyn needs to be congratulated for this.

For us, peer assessment establishes the positive approach in which everyone hopes inspections will take place. It helps teachers to have some ownership of the process and commits it firmly to an agenda for school improvement.

There was not one of us there - primary or secondary - who would want to be involved in something that wasn't going to support schools and help them to get better. What we came away with is a restored confidence in the process.

What we can see is that our involvement will lead to lasting contacts between schools. Dialogue will be promoted. New networks established. Ideas shared. An important opportunity for professional development.

The other thing is that it stops teachers being victimised by an insensitive process. We have an inspection process not fixated on blame but grounded in support.

Are we saying the process lacks teeth? Do we feel Estyn has watered the process down? No, far from it. Inspections will still be rigorous but informed by practicalities. Isn't that what we want?

I know that my own experiences will make me less likely to condemn my colleagues in other schools who are working to solve the same difficult issues as myself - inadequate funding, staffing problems, social disintegration. Perhaps I will have solutions that we can share after the inspection is over, though it is more likely that they will have ideas I can borrow. This is the real point. An inspection will no longer feel like painful emergency dentistry. It will be an ongoing care plan. An inspection process that is fostering a genuine exchange of ideas? We certainly do things differently in Wales.

It is a chance to behave as the professionals we know that we are. We know if we don't look at ourselves then things will never change and underachievement will perpetuate. Now we have a chance to build a platform.

We can share ideas across a community of schools.

I can only encourage others to take up the opportunity.

Of course, inspections are stressful. How could they not be? But good things often are. What we have here in Wales is a shared willingness to work together to improve schools for our communities. Teachers are involved, not as victims, but in a way that recognises our professional status. So when a Welsh inspection team descends upon your school and your internal organs rearrange themselves, remember why it is happening and remember how much worse it could be. You could be working in England.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed secondary, Swansea

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