Such diverse reports

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Elizabeth Newman asks how two similar schools can get such different inspectors' verdicts. This is a tale of two inspections. Over the past few months the Office for Standards in Education visited two broadly similar infant schools within the same local authority.

School A got a clean bill of health but school B was slated. The head and her staff felt the school had performed so badly that she offered her resignation to the governors. Wisely they refused to accept it.

I am head of school A and until recently taught at school B. I know both schools inside out and I can honestly say there is not a whisker of difference between them.

Both schools look at the needs of the individual child and teach according to detailed planning, assessment and recording schedules. Both schools are staffed by hard-working, committed teachers: on a good day they are inspiring. But is it possible to be inspiring all day, every day across 10 subjects?

When I read both OFSTED reports I just couldn't understand the differences that appeared on the printed page, between two schools that were actually getting similar results. And that includes value-added, using baseline assessment of four-year-olds against national tests for seven-year-olds, as well as my own admittedly subjective judgment.

So why did my school pass with flying colours and my colleague's scrape through?

She was visited by a local education authority team which did things by the book - the Framework for Inspection designed for the secondary sector. It was exactly what the 1987 Task Group on Assessment and Testing report warned against: primary staff struggling under the insupportable workload of 10 national curriculum subjects were being assessed on the teaching and preparation of each one.

When we discussed our respective experiences, the first thing that struck me was the composition of her team. Nary a one with primary, let alone infant experience. And not one had been a headteacher at any level. They'd all had their half-day "conversion course", though. I wonder how my secondary colleagues would react to an inspection team made up entirely of primary specialists?

In reality, I'd say that secondary teaching is so different from primary that it would be ludicrous. So why is the opposite allowed to happen?

Does Her Majesty's chief inspector Chris Woodhead believe that infant teaching is easier, that you don't require special expertise and that any fool can judge what exactly is going on in an infant classroom?

My colleague suffered from an excess of secondary "expertise".

It was quite a different story at my school. We had a freelance inspection team with a registered inspector who had a great deal of experience with infant schools.

Their attitude was relaxed, professional and realistic. Their advice and comments were all sympathetic to the needs of the school. They worked to a "good enough" model - what the school is doing today and what ought to be expected in the future. My inspection was helpful and encouraging. It set a realistic agenda.

But all too often, inspectors rigorously apply secondary school criteria, exaggerating negative feelings about the infant curriculum and introducing a sense that infant teachers must strive after unattainable goals.

And I doubt whether anyone - the local authority, OFSTED or schools are getting value for money out of these inspections.

An inspection ought to provide a fillip for a school that's getting things right; encouragement for a school that's "OK" but isn't sure where to go next; and fire off the distress rockets for the schools that may be about to go under.

Currently there are two cultures for primary school inspections.

If you're lucky, you get what my school received. If you're unlucky, you get a hidebound secondary "let's get them" approach. If, like my colleague, you get someone who used to be a secondary HMI then watch out!

I was encouraged when I attended one of the consultation conferences about drawing up a new Framework for Inspection. My colleagues at junior and secondary level were most supportive when I expressed my opinions. However, the HMIs and the OFSTED representatives were less encouraging. One of them dismissed my opinions as "irrelevant griping". I think not.

If you agree that the infant aspect of the framework needs addressing, write to OFSTED and say no. OFSTED can set an agenda for change, but not by a progressive dilution of the secondary model. Primary and secondary education deal with different teaching universes. The new Framework for Inspection now being finalised by OFSTED addresses most of the issues important to my secondary colleagues. But I see no evidence that OFSTED itself (with the notable exception of my registered inspector) is even aware that there might be a difference.

So, how could we develop inspection at primary level?

This is something the primary schools can just as easily do for themselves. We certainly should not be running a system where the level of rigour varies from school to school because the framework itself is designed for a different sector.

I believe primary schools would be better served by smaller self-policing inspection teams made up of, say, the head of the school paired with the head of another local school and a representative of the LEA's own inspection service to ensure fair play. OFSTED could contribute a registered inspection or provide one in the case of disagreement. They could also provide a moderation function. Chris Woodhead has to address the true shortcomings of the system. Only then will inspections really become a valuable tool for improving the quality of teaching and learning in primary schools. Currently, inspection is all too often regarded as the Spanish Inquisition and achieves similar results.

Elizabeth Newman is a pseudonym.

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