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Trick or treat?

The long-awaited new OFSTED framework will be published this.

To be introduced as an OFSTED inspector is currently the surest way for a speaker to invite heckling before a sentence of the address is uttered. Headteachers interested in OFSTED training or secondment shrink from telling their staff. The refusal of many educationists to lend their experience or skills to the process is seen as a measure of high integrity and moral principle. In short, the inspection business is currently receiving a very poor press.

Now OFSTED has responded to professional concerns. A year-long review accompanied by intensive consultation has resulted in a new amended framework and three separate handbooks for nursery and primary, secondary and special schools. These will be published on October 16 and will apply to all inspections starting in the summer term of 1996. They are dedicated to making inspection more acceptable and useful to schools, to contributing more effectively to schools' strategies for sustained improvement, to providing better evaluation and reporting and to making the process more manageable by inspectors.

What are the most significant developments in the new arrangements likely to be? and how far will they mollify the fears and instinctive mistrust of teachers, especially those who still have to undergo the inspection process?

To judge from the OFSTED "Updates" sent out to inspectors, from the pilot framework trialled in summer inspections and from the materials used as a basis for forthcoming training, the following aspects seem likely to be included among the main features.

There will be a more pronounced attempt to comprehend and represent the essential characteristics, ethos and nature of schools - to gain and convey something of their defining spirit and qualities from the mass of facts. This will take full account of schools' perceptions of how past achievements and measures, together with trends over a period of time, contribute to present developments.

Particular attention will be paid to a school's intentions and strategies, to its vision for meeting the needs of the pupils, their parents and the community it serves. This measure seems designed to add a dimension to the much criticised scenario where the report presented a snapshot of a moment in time.

The new procedure will be seen as contributing the vigorous external dimension essential to a school's own strategy for planning, review, and improvement.

There will be a sympathetic hearing for schools' accounts and objective evidence of special circumstances and circumscribing factors, with strong encouragement to be self evaluative and rigorously analytical.

The corollary for inspectors looks set to be less record-keeping and less descriptive comment in favour of unequivocal judgments, trenchantly expressed. This development will be supported by significantly modified criteria for all aspects of the report - clear, precise and succinct, amplified by detailed "issues for consideration" by inspectors.

The ultimate intention is a report that genuinely contributes to a school's efforts towards "sustained improvement" and encourages it to treat inspection as the basis for any search for development and progress.

Attainment, progression and achievement will continue to be critically important. Despite objections, especially from schools in materially disadvantaged circumstances, national norms will reamin a basis for comparison.

The contribution of nursery and reception experience to the attainment of children beginning the national curriculum programmes of study will be taken account of, as will their competences, achievements and skills, with a special reference to literacy and numeracy, defined to an extent not attempted at present.

Significant variations in progress, as distinct from achievement, between pupils of different gender and ethnicity, between pupils in different subjects, or areas of learning, will be treated as important indicators of a school's capacity to provide equitably for its whole community.

The most radical of the amendments is likely to be an expanded emphasis on teaching. The evaluation of teaching competence will be required to focus on subject expertise, the match of approaches, methods and materials to curricular objectives, the effective motivation of pupils, the communication of raised expectations with a focus on the achievement of high attainment and good progress, the successful management support and encouragement of pupils, the effective use of resources and the constructive assessment of progress.

Contrary to suggestions by the Prime Minister, there will be no question of direct identification of failing or unsatisfactory teachers. But such a detailed inventory of teaching competences and skills seems likely to make it inevitable that shortcomings in teaching performance will be inescapably highlighted.

The existing section on the quality of learning is likely to disappear, to be integrated throughout the framework. Instead there should be a section on attainment and progress, and an extended section concerned with pupil attitudes to learning, personal development and behaviour.

The new emphasis on pupils' responses to the curriculum and the way it is delivered, rather than on theories of learning, may suggest a growing concern about the need for the cultivation of a moral climate and sensibilities. This focus is echoed in a substantial section on pupil support, guidance and welfare which reiterates the need for schools to guard zealously against any forms of oppressive behaviour, of intimidation, harassment or bullying.

Primary curriculum guidance, which is unlikely to make any concession to the dilemma of primary schools seeking to implement a massive national curriculum without the requisite resourcing will: * endorse flexible teaching approaches using discrete subjects, integrated topics or a combination of both; * firmly incorporate early years as an "equal partner" in the whole educational continuum; * stress the importance of progression and continuity not only within but between schools; * encourage feedback about pupils' progress to their previous schools and urge teachers in clustered or partnership schools to share professional experience and working practice; * underline the need for equality of access and opportunity.

Equal opportunity and special educational needs will no longer be treated separately but will receive frequent reference and attention throughout the framework.

A probable amalgamation of the sections on management and efficiency will encourage focus on the quality of leadership and management as distinct from the style, will talk about vision and return to the matter of effective strategies for sustained improvement. A minor but interesting feature of the amendments will be the way in which certain developments - the value of homework even for children in the early years, the need for schools to be accountable about the use of discretionary time - are subtly given the OFSTED imprimatur and may almost become a matter of course.

In the end how are perceptions of inspection process likely to be affected? It probably depends more on existing personal attitudes than the proposed changes however radical they may be. For those who view the whole concept of inspection as little better than, in the partial phrase of a fellow countryperson, "the perennial addiction of the English to spying on the already oppressed", there is unlikely to be any conversion.

For those at the other extreme, who want to see inspection underpinned by a strong element of self evaluation so that it is a powerful instrument for educational development, the amended framework may be seen as a creative blueprint for the future. For all those in between these polarities, it will be a case of the proof of the pudding.

nOFSTED handbooks for nursery and primary, secondary and special schools will cost Pounds 9.95 each, or Pounds 22.50 for the set from HMSO.

Bill Laar is a registered inspector

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