Snapshots should focus on the best
There is probably no debate more important in education at present than the one about how we all co-operate to improve the standards of our schools. The future of our country as an economic nation depends on it; the ability of all our young people to achieve the highest standards of which they are capable depends on it. Itis fundamental, and headteachers, teachers, local authority officers and the Government are fully aware of the importance of the issue.
It is unfortunate then, that Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, chooses to cloud the issue so much in his response to Keith Anderson's letter published in The TES on October 27. There are some serious issues here which need to be debated. An attack on the role of local authorities in relation to schools impedes rather than fosters the debate.
What are the kinds of questions that need to be considered as the relevance of inspection to improvement is debated? The first concerns the purpose of the inspection process itself. The view of the chief inspector is clear. It is a system which "identifies those schools which are failing to provide their children with an adequate education". It is a system which "gives parents information about the strengths and weaknesses of the schools their children attend or might attend".
This seems to me to be a model which is dependent on identifying the weak rather than encouraging the strong. There is no indication here that the inspection is intended to help the school to improve. There is no indication that the inspection might identify and encourage good practice which can spread to other schools. There is no indication that the inspection might identify the growth points in a school's process. Is it perhaps because the thrust of the inspection is to identify the failing school that teachers are worried by the intensity of the exposure?
A further question is to ask what is the nature of the inspection process? Whatever Chris Woodhead says about the detail of the snapshot, the present Office for Standards in Education system is precisely that. It provides, at what is hoped to be a four-yearly interval, a picture of where a school stands on a number of selected issues at that particular moment. Although schools are dynamic and changing institutions, there is nothing wrong with the inspection being described as a snapshot. The question is how do you then use the snapshot as a way of improving the education which is being offered in the school?
The third issue leads on from the first two. If an inspection is really there to improve the overall quality of education, how is it preceded? How is it followed up? What part does the school's own monitoring of its own progress play? Is it possible to take a school forward unless the inspection is seen as part of a process? That process might include reflection prior to inspection, action to remedy weaknesses, action to develop strengths and an identification of further issues for development.
To do this it requires that the school becomes reflective about its practice. Another way of describing this is to say it is "a continuous process of monitoring, evaluating and inspection" - the phrase used by Keith Anderson. According to the chief inspector, schools do not want a continuous process of inspection. But if they are to improve surely there is a need for monitoring, there is a need for evaluation, there is a need to review the actions that have been taken and to ensure that they are working or the need for change.
A fourth question might well be who ought to be undertaking this monitoring and evaluation? Is it best undertaken by an independent body which has no interest in or involvement in the future of the school, but can hope therefore to give an unbiased view? Or by people who know the school and can relate critically to its strengths and weaknesses? There are sustainable arguments for either view.
A number of chief education officers have expressed to me their concern that OFSTED inspections had not revealed weaknesses in a school of which they and their inspectionadvisory services were aware. The fact that these issues are not raised by external inspectors then makes it difficult for a local inspectorate to challenge the school about them. We could admit that it was possible that a local inspection service might have too cosy a relationship with its own schools, but this need not be the case. An appropriate combination of local knowledge with national monitoring might provide a more creative framework in which school improvement can take place.
My final question is to ask to whom are heads accountable? The chief inspector seems to feel that there is no place in the pattern of accountability for the local authority which both pays the bills and is elected by the local population to provide the services. This is not to regard the local education authority in Mr Woodhead's words as "centre stage". It is simply to recognise democratic accountability which is built into our system. The chief inspector regards this as in some way "the hovering presence of the supportive LEA". Well, supportive the local authority ought to be and it has a legal duty to be. In order to be supportive it must be a presence of some kind, but I am unclear that schools nowadays regard their authorities as having a hovering presence. The relationship between schools and the LEAs has changed to one in which both sides recognise their distinct roles in the partnership which the education service ought to be.
I do not believe that any of us, whether in schools or LEAs, would deny that there is a value in having a regular, vigorous and careful national system of inspection undertaken to national criteria. It is important that such inspection is seen as part of the whole process of school improvement. The real debate ought to be about how that can take place - not whether the schools want their LEAs to be a part of the process or not.
Tony Webster is president of the Society of Education Officers and director of education for Tameside.