Time for New Model inspectors;Briefing;Governors

26th March 1999 at 00:00
Governors generally welcome inspections, but John Adams believes that the Office for Standards in Education needs to rethink its processes

In the past few months, the Office for Standards in Education has been undergoing the same kind of close inspection that it has itself been carrying out in schools.

That inspection, by the MPs on the House of Commons Select Committee, has given school governors, among others, the chance to have their say.

The National Association of Governors and Managers drew on a recent survey of its members which revealed a degree of support for OFSTED, or at least for the need for an external assessment of the work of schools - a support which some might find surprising.

Why the enthusiasm - an enthusiasm apparently not shared with the majority of teachers? In part, because governors need information, and many recognise that even where headteachers work very closely with their governing body, there will inevitably be an element of information-filtering.

An objective external assessment, then, may give insights into the work of the school, insights which cannot be acquired by any other means. OFSTED, or the OFSTED process, empowers governors, granting them access to areas of legitimate concern.

Criticism of OFSTED in the NAGM survey lay in the detail of the quality of some inspectors and their resulting reports. more general disquiet was focused on the model of inspection being used.

Detailed criticisms that came up again and again included: the skills (especially the interpersonal skills) - or lack of them - of some inspectors, the jargon-laden nature of some reports, andvariation between the verbal and written feedback.

One telling question in the survey asked governors to describe in one word their OFSTED experience. A considerable number found it "useful", "helpful" and "informative". Far more, however, found it "stressful" and some "condescending", "humiliating" and even "degrading". These are strong reactions from governors to the inspection of their schools, especially when we consider that governors are in favour of some inspection. Time for a new model, then?

There seems to be much that could be done. We need a detached, disinterested appraisal in which the inspection team is required to remain at arms-length and so avoid anysuggestion of partiality. Such an attitude would be, of course, very proper for an inspectorate, but it would come at a price.

Part of that price is exploring why OFSTED's wealth of experience has not been used to advise schools on seeking solutions to problems which inspectors have identified. Since OFSTED has promoted a culture of self-evaluation, it would be surely possible to unite self-evaluation with inspection for the vast majority of schools while retaining emergency powers for difficult situations. Inspectors say that it is not their job to advise. That is just the point. It isn't - but it should be.

It should be easy to inspect, identify weaknesses and then separately and distinctly advise - not direct - on good practice elsewhere. The process should not "taint" inspectors with responsibility for the way in which such advice is used but instead be part of an educative process.

Many governors, by dint of their holding a post at more than one school, have seen more than one OFSTED team at work and, as a result, are well able to make comparisons. Numerous schools have also been through the Investors in People model of assessment. In our survey, the IIP approach was favourably compared by many respondents to that of OFSTED.

OFSTED is, of course, consulting widely on a differentiated system: the so-called "light touch" inspection which will be offered in January 2000 to those schools meeting a given set of criteria. It will be welcomed by many.

In essence, it will, however, be less rather than different. The old model will remain unchanged.

We need more imagination in the approach to school inspection. We need some sense of partnership in the process. It is, in an educational setting, a strange model which identifies faults but does not engage in their correction. It is the antithesis of that "leading out" (Latin, educare) which is at the heart of education.

NAGM survey carried out by Catherine Burt and Jane Phillips for the "Good Governance Project", University of Hertfordshire. John Adams is chair of NAGM and a governor of Turnford School, Cheshunt.

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