We'll need a bigger sword

6th October 2006 at 01:00
No surprise heads seek a riposte to the 'put up and shut up' attitude of rogue Ofsted inspectors. But an undercover Offwatch is not it, argues Karen Todd

It is naive to believe that Ofsted will be worried about the launch of Offwatch, the National Association of Head Teachers' secret way to shop rogue or bullying inspectors ("Heads to bite back at Ofsted", TES, September 22). This is a well-meaning but flawed attempt to redress the overpowering effect of the Ofsted machine. The "naming and shaming" of heads by Ofsted is the quickest way to massacre a headteacher's professional reputation without that person having done anything criminal.

In the blink of an eye, history is rewritten, colleagues distance themselves and isolation sets in. Heads in this situation pay a huge price.

While their past is being deconstructed, their future is confined to an educational graveyard. They become the skeleton in the cupboard that nobody wants to be associated with. Heads who work in schools where there are issues regarding achievement understandably have fears about the quality of their inspection and the speed at which it can run away from them.

Unfortunately, Offwatch won't allay any of these anxieties.

This initiative is flawed because it underestimates the extent of the fear that Ofsted generates: within LEAs, for example. Once an authority has been informed that the leadership of one of its schools is flawed, it has little choice but to remove the head. It has to be seen to do the right thing in the face of the publicity which follows a failed Ofsted.

LEAs are fully aware of parent power - their elected members want to stay in office. So to preserve their own credibility, the authorities toe the line and sometimes take a very suspect moral high ground. Authorities that will take on Ofsted are few and far between. The DfES adviser will expect to see the head go, rogue inspector or not. Authorities do as they are told.

Heads with a sense of grievance are met with a pervasive attitude of "don't rock the boat"; they are expected to accept the judgment and move on. Any discussion about why this should not happen is seen as more evidence that this head can't accept the truth, so should not have been leading the school in the first place. A token settlement, a gagging clause and "Out!"

- all done at great speed and with very little dignity - has become the order of the day.

Of course, in some authorities the judgment about leadership is pre-empted and the head is "persuaded" to leave before an inspection. The threat of what could happen to them is a great lever in such cases.

Governors are also vulnerable. How easy it is for a bullying inspector to intimidate or talk down to governors and to make well-meaning people feel inept and negligent. Local authorities' political governors can't be guaranteed to support a head. And where a governing body does support the head, Ofsted can argue that the governors are too influenced by the head to do their job.

Despite the introduction of the new inspection framework, there is still fear of Ofsted in schools. Many hard-working teachers find the extra pressure of inspection massively stressful. For heads, it can be a life-changing experience - rarely in a good way.

We can only welcome the many ways in which Ofsted has tried to become more humane and less threatening in schools. However, it would have greater credibility if it policed its inspectors in a more transparent manner.

Heads who challenge Ofsted are put under enormous pressure to withdraw the complaint. They are asked whether they are seeking revenge; whether they really want to complain (after all, they are told, they must feel very disappointed and under great stress). If the complaint does go ahead, the investigation is carried out in-house by the company employing the inspector. Often, the investigation rests on a private conversation between two people. There is no proof; it is one person's word against another, therefore there is no resolution.

We don't need a whispering campaign behind closed doors to solve the problem of rogue inspectors - we need a robust complaints procedure with credibility and substance.

I would like to see our headteacher and teacher unions working with Ofsted, local authority representatives and governor associations to create an independent, inter-organisational complaints body which can protect schools effectively from a small number of inspectors who inflict professional and personal damage. This will safeguard inspectors as well as heads.

I hope (Chief Inspector) Christine Gilbert will be more interested in setting up such a dialogue than in hearing unsubstantiated accounts of the improper behaviour of the inspectorate.

Karen Todd is a former headteacher who now works as a writer and trainer with Ergo Consultants, based in the North West

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