We're really not that cruel

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Anecdotal tales of horrible OFSTED inspections are more mythical than a true reflection of the service, says the new chief inspector Mike Tomlinson (right)

Scanning some of the recent contributions to the debate about the future of the Office for Standards in Education in these columns, I was struck by how many proposals are already current practice.

I have to ask myself whether this is evidence of our failure to communicate adequately, our critics' refusal to acknowledge the changes we have made, or simply that myths are more potent than the truth.

Perhaps it is a blend of all three. But let me illustrate my point. In one article OFSTED is said to "refuse to help lame schools walk". If "lame" means schools in special measures, then this ignores the termly monitoring visits by Her Majesty's Inspectors which have been standard procedure for many years. Schools value these visits and acknowledge the part they play in getting them back on track. They write and tell us so.

Another article pleads for school leaders and middle managers to serve on inspection teams. Well, they do. Currently they make up nearly a quarter of all OFSTED's contracted inspectors. Indeed, one headteacher is a successful contractor in his own right. I would like to see this taken further, which is one reason why we will help the new National College for School Leadership develop a training programme.

A writer complains that OFSTED should do more to spread the word about good practice among schools, using new technology. This is already underway as I announced at recent conferences. From March we will use our website to list schools which have good practice in up to three areas of work. Every school in England will have a password which will enable them to access that list and contact the schools. The exemplar schools will be changed annually.

I cite these examples to illustrate how discussion of the OFSTED inspection system has been demonised - and frequently personalised - to the point where the facts have often been overlooked. For instance, since January 2000, returns from schools inspected show that 95 per cent are satisfied with all aspects of their inspection. How does this square with the views of some of our vociferous critics?

But inspection can always be improved and so I welcome the debate initiated by The TES. I simply request that this should be rational and informed. I fully accept inspection will need to develop to take account of the changing situation in schools, as it always has done. Performance management, more and better school-level data and school self-evaluation are now features of the system in a way they were not in 1993. Future inspection arrangements must reflect those changes.

Despite all this, I am clear about one thing: objective, external inspection must remain a vital part of both the accountability and improvement mechanisms. Data alone cannot explain the performance of a school, nor tell you whether standards are as high as they should be, nor do justice to those important aspects of the school - such as its ethos - which cannot be measured. Similarly, self-evaluation cannot provide the objective critique that parents and governors value.

So, while the principle of external inspection is immutable, as far as I am concerned, there is room for debate about the extent of inspection and about the process itself. This year happens to be the ideal time for such a debate. The present cycle of secondary school inspections ends in summer 2003. We will start soon to consult all interested parties on possible future inspection models, just as we did towards the end of the first cycle in 1996.

In the meantime, I shall continue to consider ways of improving the present arrangements. In particular, I want to see value-added data replace free school meals when judging the relative performance of schools.

I want inspectors to give more weight to pupil mobility and to how schools deal with bullying and the under-achievement of minority ethnic pupils. We must find ways of giving more prominence to pupils' and parents' views on these latter issues.

Inspection is, by its nature, a stressful event - even for the inspectors.

We know that some anxious school managers and LEAs have added unnecessarily to the pressure on conscientious classroom teachers. And there is anecdotal evidence that the OFSTED "threat" can be a useful mechanism for getting long-neglected policies and plans brought up to date. But this still does not explain the level of misery reported.

We have done whatever we can to reduce the impact of inspection. We have introduced short inspections, radically cut the period of notice, slashed our requirements for pre-inspection documentation, de-registered overbearing inspectors and encouraged better feedback and dialogue between inspectors and teachers. Can we do more?

I believe the familiarity which has come from the second round of inspection has helped to ratchet down the levels of anxiety.

My greatest wish is that all children receive the best education and care. OFSTED's role is to report without fear or favour - and that means drawing equal attention to the successful aspects of the system as well as those which need improving.

Mike Tomlinson is chief inspector of schools. Join in the debate on OFSTED's future by e-mailing us at letters@tes.co.uk, or write to The Editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX.

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