Why inspections set you free;Opinion;Platform

14th May 1999 at 01:00
Schools capable of managing their own affairs should be free to discount OFSTED advice. To argue otherwise would undermine their independence, says chief inspector Chris Woodhead

I hate to disappoint TES readers, but I have not suddenly seen the light. There has been no Pauline conversion. I do not think that schools across the country should "bin" their inspection reports (TES, April 30). As always, the headline - "Feel free to bin reports, says Woodhead" - needs to be put into context.

A Leeds primary headteacher told me at a recent conference that his school had not been able to act upon a key issue because the language was so opaque that nobody had been able to understand the nature of the problem. He read the issue out. I could not understand it either. I told him that the only sensible thing to do was forget about it. Next time he was inspected he should explain why he had done nothing. If anybody were then to be held responsible for his lack of action it would have to be OFSTED. I apologised for this lapse in our standards.

The vast majority of our reports are incisive, well-written and worthy, therefore, of the most serious consideration. A few, sadly, are not. Unintelligible reports deserve to be challenged. So, too, do reports that are bland; reports that cannot be stood up in terms of the evidence; reports that are ideologically tainted or fuzzy in their thinking. Any school that thinks their inspection is flawed must let OFSTED know. We will investigate, quickly and rigorously.

My expectations of OFSTED are as high as they are of schools. They must be. An inspection is too important an event in the life of a school for it to be anything other than the highest quality. This year we are aiming to monitor around 30 per cent of inspections to ensure that each and every one is of appropriate quality.

Inspection is important because the team looks at a school with fresh eyes. They will see things that may not be obvious to its teachers. We all find it difficult to keep an objective perspective on our day-to-day work. The longer we do any job, the harder it is to avoid being socialised into a particular set of values, professional assumptions and working practices.

A key purpose of inspection is to challenge what is taken for granted. That challenge, provided the inspection is rigorous and the school's response professional, will help define the school's agenda for the future, and, in so doing, it will make an important contribution to higher standards.

What, though, does the word "professional" mean in this context? This is the really interesting issue, and it is one that I have been raising at a number of conferences.

Many heads see the key issues in their report as a set of instructions which they must follow. They believe, furthermore, that other priorities which the school thinks important must be abandoned in order to focus on what the report is telling them to do. This is an erroneous and damaging misconception.

The inspection report is an external critique of the school's performance. It is not a mandatory programme of action. A school may well decide that a particular key issue is not the issue that it wishes to pursue at that moment. Other, internally identified, priorities may be judged more important.

As we state very clearly in our guidance to inspectors: a governing body is within its rights not to have followed up a key issue, but should have a clear rationale for this decision. A second inspection may, of course, conclude that the school should have acted upon its first report. So be it. It is headteachers and governors who should determine the development of a school, not inspectors.

It is the school, and only the school, which must take responsibility for its own decisions. To argue otherwise is to travel down a road which leads to a loss of autonomy and the professional demoralisation which inevitably follows.

I am talking, of course, of schools which can manage their own destinies. The situation is different in schools which have failed their inspections or which are judged to have serious weaknesses. Such schools must sort out the problems the inspection reveals. Their failure is an index of their inability to think and act for themselves, and, until their problems have been solved and standards of pupil achievement have been raised, others external to the school must play a direct part in defining and driving forward the agenda.

Most schools do not, of course, fail their inspections. Most schools are capable of managing their own destinies. The key challenge for the future is to develop this capacity. I do not want inspection, any more than I want local education authorities or university education departments, to draw schools into a culture of dependency, an over-reliance on the supposed wisdom of the outside expert.

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