Time to reform the inspection process

13th October 1995 at 01:00
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools' "blistering attack" (TES, October 6) on local authority inspection teams is as ill-founded as it is ill-judged. I would never defend an authority which had deliberately gone soft on weak schools in order to further its own business interests, but where is the evidence that this is happening?

Has Chris Woodhead actually taken any chief education officer to task for such unprofessional conduct? The Office for Standards in Education monitors the work of registered inspectors; OFSTED lets the contracts. Speculative comments such as ". . . it may be that some (LEA teams) will tend to say nice things . . ." from an OFSTED spokesman come ill from an organisation which is supposed to base its judgments on hard evidence, and which demands such rigour from those who work for it.

The truth is that OFSTED is in deep trouble. It cannot meet its targets. Too many of the inspection reports are written in language that is bland and unhelpful. The outcome of the process rarely represents value for money, and the inspection funds siphoned away from LEAs to help set up this new empire are now perceived as supporting an expensive and largely irrelevant bureaucracy.

Nor is it any use Chris Woodhead complaining that LEAs have failed to support the new inspection regime. Why should LEAs employ staff to spend a majority of their time working for OFSTED? If OFSTED really had wanted LEAs to play a significant part in the new inspection regime, it would either have commissioned them to act as local agents for the national body or it would have entered into longer-term contracts that provided a greater degree of continuity and security.

In the event, the ad hoc outcomes of a tendering process where cost is clearly a crucial factor - and few consultants carry the overheads that local authorities have to - have meant that LEAs are gradually, and understandably, turning their resources, expertise and time to activities in which they can invest with a surer knowledge that school improvement will be the outcome. These strategies include staff and curriculum support and development, monitoring and - believe it or not - inspection. LEAs have learned a lot over the past few years about rigour in inspection working alongside Her Majesty's Inspectorate. Now is the time to reform HMI in order to moderate, sample, advise, inspect and disseminate.

There need be nothing cosy about such an arrangement, either for LEAs or their schools. The Education and Employment Secretary still has powers to intervene where she thinks appropriate; HMI would have the expertise and credibility to negotiate improved performance at each level.

And lest there are still any lingering doubts that LEAs might be tempted to be soft on themselves and their own performance, let alone that of their schools, let me report that the Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers is actively considering ways of setting up critical reviews of how effective LEAs are in their role.

It may be that the way lies ahead in a Rayner-style scrutiny, based on critical self-evaluation against an agreed framework of role and performance indicators, and with various forms of external moderation.

Just about everyone recognises that the snapshot inspection of itself does little to raise standards. The print soon fades and the messages are easily forgotten.

Real school improvement - and real LEA effectiveness - are based on a continuous process of monitoring, evaluation and inspection. Ownership of that process has to be accepted by everyone, not just the incompetent or failing. The narrow focus of attack on the disaster areas that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector now appears to recommend will do nothing to stretch the ablest.

It is because most LEAs and their advisory and inspection teams understand and practise the importance of this that Chris Woodhead should be looking to work more closely with them than denigrating them. Allegations against LEAs of financial self-interest as against the private commercial sector are, frankly, illogical, and do little to promote the notion of partnership which the Secretary of State is trying so hard to encourage.

Keith Anderson is chairman of the Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers

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