Weaknesses in the support structure

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Shattered by OFSTED, Cathy Byrne wonders whether there was any value in the week-long visit. A universally acknowledged factor following an OFSTED inspection is the sledgehammer effect. Having been subjected to a shattering week with the inspectors, teachers in all schools - whether the outcome is good, bad or indifferent - report apathy, a flat feeling, an inability to pick up and go forward with any sort of enthusiasm. We're crushed.

Part of the problem is the advance warning. It is extremely depressing to realise that in spite of the months - years almost - that you've had to prepare, you still can't get it completely right. The inspection week was you at your best, the school tarted up, documents to hand, lessons prepared for three hours every night with all the resources on tap and everything under control. And still it wasn't good enough.

Another part of the problem is that following the inspection, you have all those personal things in your life to see to which you have told your family you would do: AO (After OFSTED). At the same time, you have to continue teaching at your everyday mediocre level knowing that they were able to smash you flat, even at your best.

The OFSTED process is not intended to be constructive. It identifies strengths and weaknesses but gives no indications of how to address them. The inspectors will say they observed X lessons. They will say that X per cent were rubbish, X per cent were satisfactory and X per cent were good. They will not say which these lessons were; nor where or how improvements could be made.

It's like telling your class that you have marked all their work for the past week and that on the whole it was "satisfactory" with some lows and some highs but that you are never going to let them see the marked work, give them their individual scores or tell them how they might improve.

It is left to the governors and management to address the weaknesses through an action plan. Ah, but here's the problem. Let's say it took the inspection team 30 man-days (six inspectors multiplied by five days and that doesn't include the evenings) to come to their conclusions. They have amassed mountains of evidence on individuals, on systems and on the site.

That evidence resides in a file in the bowels of some official building. It will never see the light of day. It will never be useful to the school. So in order to formulate an action plan, the school must go over some of the ground covered by OFSTED without the benefit of the time in man-hours. And this at a time when the school is shattered, when confidence is zapped and several staff have gone sick. The best teachers are left thinking it is they who are under-performing and those who really are under-performing are unaware of the fact.

So the school discovers precisely what is meant by the report's sweeping statements and the action plan is duly formulated and implemented. What then? In all except cases of failure, there is no check that any improvements have been made, not, that is until the sledgehammer descends again in four years' time.

The explanation at the end of the summary inspection report sent to parents following an OFSTED inspection reads: "The purpose (of inspections) is to identify strengths and weaknesses in schools, that may improve the quality of education offered and raise the standards achieved by their pupilsI" Sounds good, doesn't it? Sounds as though identifying strengths and weaknesses will improve the quality of education.

Did you notice the word may, not will? Amazing that, really. All this money spent on the inspection programme and only the possibility of improvement.

And yet education these days is all about value for money. OFSTED seems a very expensive sledgehammer to me.

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