Someone's watching

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Michael Duffy discusses the effects of inspection. OFSTED INSPECTIONS: THE EARLY EXPERIENCE Improvement through Inspection: Complementary Approaches to School Development. Both edited by Janet Ouston, Peter Early and Brian Fidler David Fulton. Pounds 14.99 each

How effective is OFSTED at securing school improvement? Given the Pounds 100m annual cost of the present four-year cycle of inspections and the media credence given to the Senior Chief Inspector's uninhibited reporting of them, it's not an unimportant question. It's helpful then that it runs like a sub-text through both these books, simultaneously published from the reliable Early, Fidler and Ouston research and school improvement stable. Improvement through Inspection is a snappy OFSTED motto: OFSTED in operation, the authors say, may be more problematic.

Ofsted Inspections: The Early Experience is based on papers given to the British Educational Research Association conference in September 1994, updated to September 1995. To the extent that they describe the detail of inspection, they have been partly overtaken by the revised Framework which comes into effect on April 1 and which is certainly an improvement on its predecessor - clearer, less prescriptive and much less bureaucratic. It will not, however, change the fundamentals of the process, and there are challenging essays here from Janet Maw, John Learmonth and (especially) Chris Bowring-Carr on some of the assumptions that still underpin it.

Maw, for example, argues that it rests on an auditaccountability model that precludes dialogue with schools and depends too heavily on external norms of sometimes dubious validity - a thesis that the media's perennial and damaging confusion between "norms" and "averages" pointedly reinforces. Learmonth, asking "have we trained inspectors to inspect, or just to follow the instructions in the Handbook?" urges much more dialogue with teachers about inspectors' observations.

Bowring-Carr, like Learmonth a former HMI, challenges what he calls the myth of inspection objectivity. How, he asks, given the pressures under which the inspection team must work and the range of contexts to which they must acclimatise, can their judgments possibly be, as the Framework requires, "objective" and "consistent" and "corporate"? And in what sense can these individuals, contracted as they are for lonely hours of observation, possibly be a "team"?

After these reservations, the research evidence about the short-term effects of OFSTED inspection, drawn largely from secondary schools inspected during the autumn terms of 1993 and 1994, comes as something of a surprise. Three-quarters of respondents (presumably heads - teachers might have had rather different perceptions) saw the inspection as generally positive, and the same proportion reported that the issues identified for action coincided with those already identified within the school. Negative responses tended to come from schools at the extremes of the presumed performance scale: confident schools which said that their report "only told them what they knew already", less confident schools that reported stress and demoralisation and tended to challenge the accuracy (and isolation) of inspectors' judgments.

What is not clear in this research, apart from the necessary exclusion of primary schools, only made subject to inspection from 1995, is the extent to which school improvement measures were taken as a result of the inspection, or were started independently of it. The thrust of Improvement Through Inspection: Complementary Approaches to School Development is that the impetus for effective change has to come from school level. The pressure for change may come from outside - but the school itself has to be in the driving seat. Contributors, including heads and deputies as well as consultants and researchers, identify a range of models that fit this definition and have been shown in practice to be capable of improving children's learning. True, they are all "initiatives" - a word that often depresses teachers' spirits. The claim here, though, is that they are initiatives which with the right preparation and support have brought about real not notional changes: in one case, a multi-school action research project, in another, total quality management, in two more, the replanning and rethinking involved in Investors in People accreditation. What they have in common is the need both for institutional self-review and evaluation and for partnership - what one contributor describes as "shared beliefs, collaboration, support, joint evaluation". LEAs, governors, parents, the local community, are all seen as potentially powerful partners in this network.

Clearly, none of this is necessarily inconsistent with inspection. External audits, genuinely sensitive to the range of different contexts in which even neighbouring schools are likely to be working, do give schools an independent analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. Provided they don't inhibit the school's capacity to rethink for itself its own performance, set its own targets and plan its own strategy and approaches, they have a crucial role to play. It is good news then, the editors say, that the new Framework directs inspectors to report on the school's own initiatives for improvement. On an optimistic reading, external quality control - the accountability to the market model that was written into inspection legislation - does appear to be ceding ground in Ofsted to the shared quality assurance model that is urged in these stimulating and timely volumes.

On a pessimistic reading one is less than sure. So much depends on tone. It's a pity perhaps that these pages don't address OFSTED's use of the so-called "pre-inspection context indicators" as proxies for the actual variables that confront most schools. Nor do they raise the intriguing question of the validity of the OFSTED data base, given the Chief Inspector's drastic (and presumably self-fulfilling) extrapolation from it of 15,000 teachers who need to be dismissed. This emphasis makes all inspection a fundamentally threatening prospect and blows partnership through the window. Commonsense suggests that criticism that is seen to be accurate and fair is the criticism most likely to yield improvement. There is still a lot to play for on the inspection front.

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