School Management Update: What inspectors fail to mention

29th November 1996 at 00:00
It would not come as a surprise to discover that Brian Wilcox and John Gray had agreed on some kind of self denying ordinance before embarking on Inspecting Schools. The text is scrupulously impersonal, purged of anything that might sound like the grinding of axes or teeth - no mean feat in a book which has Office for Standards in Education at virtually every point on the dial.

There is much to applaud in this approach. What Wilcox and Gray appreciate is that there is no point in either reiterating the standard complaint that OFSTED doesn't employ valid research methods or getting drawn into an ideological slanging match. Instead, they take the long view,providing a series of contexts by which the Government's creation can be judged: "Those who practice inspection are often wedded to the view that it is 'common sense'. Consequently attempts to locate it within the frameworks of social theorists have not, to our knowledge, been previously attempted."

They trace the history of inspection, relishing the ironies that are available to anybody who can avoid indignation. Here, for example, is Matthew Arnold writing about the Revised Code of 1862 on which was based both payment by results and the new inspection regime that it inspired: "In a country where everyone is prone to rely too much on mechanical processes and too little on intelligence, a change in the Education Department's regulations, which, by making two-thirds of the government grant depend upon mechanical examination, inevitably gives a mechanical turn to the school teaching, a mechanical turn to the inspection, and must be trying to the intellectual life of a school."

Having established that "full inspection" is simply one among a number of options, the authors proceed to unpick the ideology by which it is informed. At times, it is laborious. A lot of the history of the last five years will be familiar, but it pays off. By the end, you are left feeling that public debate about the role and value of OFSTED has been woefully inadequate.

The book avoids making large claims, almost as a matter of principle. If that's the kind of thing you want, it seems to be saying, you can get it from OFSTED. It does, however, worry away at problems and at two in particular:

First, what versions of a good school are captured in the Framework for Inspection and, crucially, what are missed? Second, does inspection improve schools?

When the OFSTED's Framework for Inspection was first published, it was received with widespread approval. Because it had managed to avoid being hijacked by any one of the special interest groups that patrol even the furthest reaches of the educational universe, it appeared to be remarkably benign. It insisted upon outcomes rather than processes and this marked it out as a document that could be used to evaluate a range of practices, not just those that were explicitly approved. The relief was palpable.

What Wilcox and Gray demonstrate is that it isn't quite as simple as that."The model," they point out, "represents a culmination of the growing trend in recent years to regard schools essentially as management systems concerned with the delivery of specific standards of performance and quality." Inspection, in other words, is essentially about compliance; its purpose is disciplinary. As a consequence, "the heart of the teaching and learning process is almost invariably missing from the descriptions that are provided [in inspection reports]."

Perhaps more significant is what they have to say about the claim that inspection leads to improvement. They tackle this question in two ways, empirically by means of a number of case studies, and theoretically by measuring OFSTED's practice against the work of people such as Michael Fullan who explores the conditions necessary to effect real change in schools.

A lot of action plans, they found, are "worthy but dull", not the kind of stuff which can be woven into "a vision capable of capturing the enthusiasm of staff". Where recommendations are implemented, they are usually the least significant. The 25 per cent of recommendations that fail to be addressed, even two years after an inspection, tend to be the ones about curriculum delivery or teaching and learning.

Most of this is entirely consistent with what we know about school improvement. What was striking about OFSTED was its apparent belief that things could be otherwise, that change could be engineered more quickly if government were most insistent. If Wilcox and Gray are right, that claim looks fairly shaky.

But this book is not seeking to make a case for dismantling OFSTED. Like Fullan, Wilcox and Gray recognise that change is about a judicious mixture of pressure and support. What they argue for is "the missing section in inspection manuals over the years", the school's "capacity to improve". It is an intriguing notion and one that ought to attract the attention of anybody concerned with school improvement. For that alone, this book makes an important contribution to the debate about effective schools.

Patrick Scott

The writer is deputy director ofeducation for Redcar and Cleveland,but writes here in a personal capacity

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