An unfair advantage

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Q. A neighbouring school just inspected was informed in advance of the precise lessons the inspection team would observe. The registered inspector indicated that this was intended to make the inspection less stressful for the staff. Is this a recent innovation by OFSTED? Can we expect the same treatment when we are inspected? Surely it is most unfair if the practice, which would give teachers a considerable advantage, is not generally applied. What do you think?


It is highly unlikely that you will be similarly favoured. OFSTED does not advocate providing schools with a timetable which details what will be inspected at particular times, and so it is not general practice. I agree that such advance knowledge would be highly advantageous, enabling schools to focus planning, preparation and resources in a concentrated and possibly exclusive way. Apart from the fact that random or idiosyncratic application of the practice is clearly unfair to the many schools not so favoured, the notion of precisely identifying which lessons will be inspected seems to me wrong and ill-advised for important reasons.

First, a technical one. In even the most well-organised of inspections, teams sometimes need to agree timetable adjustments with the school to ensure that essential information is secured or that the evidence base is adequate in all areas. A timetable detailed in advance, on which teachers were counting, would seriously restrict the flexibility necessary to allow for such arrangements.

But there are other and more important reasons for rejecting the practice. Few would pretend that inspection is a precise science providing a flawless, wholly valid picture of a school. But, whatever its shortcomings, the present process probably represents the most precise ordered and objective review and analysis of schools undertaken to date. Inspection achieves, even in a few days or a week, a significant, even profound analysis of a school, based on the sheer weight of lessons observed according to explicit and agreed criteria, access to teachers' planning and assessment, objective evidence of pupils' attainment, detailed observation and analysis of their work, a formidable body of background and statistical information, and the personal explication of their whole professional endeavour by teachers and co-ordinators.

Many experienced inspectors and advisers "attached" to individual schools will accept that a week of intensive inspection can provide a more informed and thorough perception, an additional dimension of awareness and insight into children's attainment and learning, than the substantial knowledge built up even over years of professional contact.

Out of the whole process - and perhaps this is the vital core of inspection - comes a sound understanding, not merely for inspectors but also for teachers, of what it is that children encounter in a school, in terms of education, week by week. Indeed it is arguable that what is observed during an inspection, planned and prepared for as it is, may well represent the school at a peak of operation and achievement. By the time they are visited, teachers are probably in a position to teach at least as consistently well, over a series of lessons, as they have ever done before. At the same time, where inspections err it is more likely to be on the side of leniency - contrary to popular belief.

If teachers knew exactly which subjects were to be inspected at a given time, the whole affair would become a mere performance. It would convey an unreal impression of children's day-to-day educational experience and provision.

What of the issue of taking the stress out of the situation? Of course inspection is a daunting business and many people do not perform at their best under such pressure. But I believe that teachers will give of their best, not because they are bolstered by the subverting of the process, but because they are assured of their skill and competence, confident in what they have achieved and aware of their capacity for even more advances.

* Bill Laar is a registered inspector. Write to him at The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax: 0171 782 3200. His book, Surviving School Inspection, is available for TES readers at Pounds 10.99 from TES Surviving School Inspection Offer, PO Box 345, Falmouth TR11 2YX

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