Is there an inspector in the house?

21st March 1997 at 00:00
When I was a child I used to dream of being a member of an illustrious profession. One day I would be walking past the scene of an accident. "Let me through, I'm a doctor", I would cry and the crowd would melt obediently aside, watching in admiration as I opened my bag of medical equipment, wrought a quick miracle or two, and saved some poor beggar's life.

Back in the real world I became a teacher. Would anyone ever call out in desperation, "Is there a teacher in the house?", I wondered, eagerly beckoning me through the throng, so I could stroll forward imperiously, clutching my bag of spelling tests and old A-level papers, while admiring parents watched me rescue their child from a lifetime of drudgery? Alas, the opportunity never arose.

Nor would it have arisen had I become a headteacher. Would some desperate soul ever have called out, "Is there a headteacher in the house?", at which point I could have rushed forward, picked up all the litter and admonished everybody for untidiness? I fear not.

Once I became an academic the opportunity for instant glamour became even less likely. "Let me through, I'm a professor of education", I could say proudly. As the crowds melted to one side I would open a bag full of lecture notes, committee minutes and articles on the social correlates of educational performance. I have never had the nerve for it.

Still it could have been worse if I had taken other jobs. "Is there a chief inspector in the house?", someone might have called out from the crowd, and I would have had to leap up and talk bollocks for half an hour.

Teaching is for stayers, not for sprinters. The fruits of it are planted and harvested day after day, week upon week, not snatched in some spectacular one-off event. Even brilliant teachers who are highly inspirational need a decent period of time to influence their pupils. That is why judging the quality of teaching should be a lot less ham-fisted than it is.

The publication of national primary school league tables provoked a predictable response. As Little Piddlington County Primary School emerged several places higher than Swinesville Junior School, some critics automatically commended the teachers at the former and condemned those at the latter, without bothering to look at the circumstances in which the results had been attained.

"Is there an idiot in the house?" a journalist calls out. "Let me through, I'm a cretin", cries Henry Halfwit, pushing through the crowd, opening his leather bag of cliches to say that parents should demand that the teachers of Swinesville Juniors pull up their socks, be put on fatigues, or get their cards.

Whatever else league tables do, they tell us little about the quality of teaching in each school. The teachers of Swinesville Juniors may be performing miracles against the odds, while those at Little Piddlington may be cruising along, doing only moderately well with very able and highly motivated pupils. League tables alone will not reveal that hidden story, and no one with any sense pretends that they do.

There is a high correlation between league table positions and the social class of pupils in each school. Indeed, I am currently working with two university geographers to analyse the most effective use of various social factors when interpreting school test scores.

Although I am in favour of parents knowing the results of school testing programmes, I would still not publish any kind of league tables, even if they have been adjusted to take into account the effects of social background. They are still not the best means of judging the quality of teachers in a school.

Given the complexity of teaching, the many different contexts in which it takes place and the various background factors that influence its outcome, the only feasible way of making an intelligent appraisal of teaching is to assemble what is sometimes called a "consensus of those able to judge". So, is there an inspector in the house?

Sadly, the current inspection model adopted by the Office for Standards in Education is not the answer either, as it is far too mechanical. After the very short training required, it is hardly surprising. A week in a hotel (for a Pounds 900 fee nowadays) and you get your badge. For what else can you become fully qualified in five days? What on earth can be learned in a week at the Heckmondwike Savoy, other than how to spell "generally sound"?

Another day or two and you can add further strings to your bow. In a fortnight or so a person can qualify as an inspector of nursery, primary, secondary and special education. "Let me through, I'm a robot. Let me through, I'm a robot. Let me through, I'm a robot." Try and get a decent first-aid qualification, a pilot's licence, a mountain leadership certificate, or pass your driving test, in just a few days.

When I was in the Cubs I had to collect stamps for six months to get my collector's badge. Six bloody months of assiduous cataloguing, mounting, researching, all for one Cub badge. If only OFSTED had been around in my childhood I could have spent the same time becoming licensed to inspect teaching, motorway flyovers, hospitals, lorries, fire escapes, jet engines, prisons and intergalactic space craft.

When we set up an intelligent system of inspection which combines national and local strengths, involves both internal and external assessment, on fair and sensible lines, we might be in a better position to judge and improve the quality of teaching. While it is treated as a single low-level skill, capable of being league tabled, there is little hope.

Is there an inspiration in the house?

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