The next round of inspections will leave governors in the dark.
Without apparently consulting anyone other than OFSTED, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has decided that the second cycle of OFSTED inspections - due to start next September for secondary and in September 1998 for primary schools - will differ from the first in three important ways.
First, many, perhaps most, schools are to have their second inspection six years after their first. The remainder will be selected for earlier inspection mainly because there are substantial doubts about their performance; they will include a new category of schools which, though not found to be failing, are nevertheless identified as having serious weaknesses.
In the view of the National Association of Governors and Managers, this change will frustrate the most important purpose of inspection - to provide those who manage schools, notably governors, with that independent assessment which they need to complement their own efforts. Too much will go wrong, and too many opportunities for improvement will be missed, if this assessment occurs every six instead of every four years.
Every school, however good it may be, needs to perform still better if state schools are to meet the National Targets for Education and Training and to all the other challenging aims which the Government and public expect.
Standards will not rise as they should and could fall if some schools are allowed to rest complacently on their modest and perhaps withering laurels. It is dangerous to divide schools into those that do not need a push and those that do. Nor may such a division even be practicable: the OFSTED consultation document on the new scheme's details ties itself in knots on how to select schools for early inspection.
Second, inspections in the second cycle are usually to have a narrower focus. At primary schools, the emphasis will be on teaching and learning in English, maths and science and, at secondary schools, in these and only four other national curriculum subjects. The OFSTED document struggles bravely with the problem of how to select these four subjects school by school. The change is bound to undermine the aim of a broad and balanced curriculum, to which NAGM is committed, and create a demotivating divide between those subjects that merit inspection and those that don't.
Third, the second cycle is to involve a second meeting between the registered inspector and parents after the inspection. This meeting is welcome as an occasion when the inspector can explain the report to parents, and in particular tell them how far the inspection supported parents' views about the school which they had expressed beforehand. But reporting separately to governors and parents will have its problems. It would muddy the waters if, at the second meeting with parents, the inspector put glosses on the report which (s)he had not communicated to the governors. Nor is this meeting the occasion for parents either to question the inspector about how the governors should react to the report, since that is not the inspector's business, or to question the governors on this point, while the inspector sits there like the proverbial wise monkey. Such questions should be kept for the annual parents' meeting and, where appropriate, a special consultation evening.
The three changes have not been sufficiently explained, let alone justified. September 1997 still lies some way ahead. Let us hope that it will not inaugurate the decline of an inspection system that is showing real promise.
Hadrian Southorn is chairman of the National Association of Governors and Managers.