Sting in the forked tail of inspections

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Ofsted has paid a visit

Ofsted has paid a visit. If I tell you that I will swallow burning toasting forks for our lead inspector, you will guess the report turned out pretty well for us.

After the comments she made when I introduced her to staff on the morning of the inspection, I feared it might be otherwise. "I believe in inspection," she started, as staff slid down in their seats. "I have seen standards of teaching rise over the past 20 years," she continued. "And all as a result of Ofsted."

Deathly hush. The silence of sinners realising the error of their ways. Oh, poor misguided teachers. They thought standards had risen because they were working harder. They thought it was as a result of using ICT to plan more exciting lessons.

Even crediting improving results to Jamie Oliver for banning Turkey Twizzlers would be better than admitting a truth too awful to contemplate: that old forked-tail Woodhead might have been right all along.

In what ways might Ofsted have boosted standards? Well, there's fear. Like parents conjuring up pictures of what the bogey man might do if you don't clean your teeth, heads have been good at insinuating threats to raise expectations. No plenary in your planning? Ofsted will get you. Better keep your marking up to date, just in case you-know-who calls. What, no lesson objectives? Just you wait until Ofsted gets here, my lad.

Fear is bad, but rigour is good. Having to grade lessons for Ofsted forces us to cut through our natural desire to be woolly and nice to one another, and makes us more discerning in our judgements; my self-evaluation form (SEF) is more Hemingway than Enid Blyton because I know an inspector will read it. The Ofsted buzz-words imbue our culture; the current one is "impact". It is sensible to know whether our setting policy in maths is having an impact on raising attainment, but there is an increasing tendency to measure everything, and frankly we serve pink custard in the canteen just because I like it.

Inspection used to be very simple. My old Kingsbridge School logbook contains the visiting HMI's report for the year ending March 31, 1903: "The boys are, in general, in good order and are capably taught. The old desks do not look well in the new rooms and are not good in themselves."

That's it. Contrast it with our inspection in 2004, which ran to 63 pages; or 2008's, which contained 43 separate areas of judgement. Certainly, the suicides of several heads are a stark reminder of how high the stakes have become.

Ofsted is consulting on a new framework of inspection, to begin in 2009. Its budget is being cut again, so expect less frequent and slimmer inspections, especially for schools whose data is positive. Here are my three recommendations:

- HMI has always been the sherbet inside Ofsted's bitter lemon; teachers respect its experience, objectivity and professionalism. So stop putting inspections out to the lowest bidder, and let Her Majesty once again run the inspection service.

- Remember that local authorities are still supposed to provide challenge and support for schools, and have a new army of school improvement partners (SIPs) to help them spy. If they fail to spot a failing school before Ofsted, then let the local authority go into special measures too.

- Finally, Ofsted is about impact. So it should measure impartially the impact of government policies. Let's start with leadership and management. It will be the same three days' notice that we get. And then, Mr Balls, an inspector calls.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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