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Why it's worth all the agony

Q I am a GP with little knowledge of education apart from what I have gained from reading my parents' copy of The TES.

I am becoming aware, however, of the considerable stress that inspections are causing for teachers. Whatever inspections achieve, do they justify such a threat to teachers' health and well-being?

A Your viewpoint will be sympathetically received by many people in education, where there is a feeling that the trinity of national curriculum, appraisal and now, most potently, inspection may be causing unprecedented apprehension and stress for teachers.

I shall try to comment on what is a serious and complex issue by briefly saying what inspection is, what it seems likely to achieve and whether, in the end, the outcomes justify the anxiety, and even grief, that it may cause for some people.

Inspection is intended to evaluate, as authoritatively as possible, against accepted criteria, the quality of education provided by schools, the extent to which it satisfies pupils' statutory entitlement, and how effectively the pupils are enabled to become competent, informed, intellectually curious, spiritually aware and morally and socially responsible.

Schools' leadership, management, efficiency, curriculum structures and planning, teaching, ethos, discipline, pupils' welfare provision, relationships and communications are rigorously analysed.

The process is a very open one. The Office for Standards in Education has published a highly detailed handbook, supported by other literature, informing schools of what to expect and what to prepare for. Schools are informed of their inspection a year in advance. It is not wholly unlike the situation of the student who knows what she is likely to encounter in an examination and may use previously completed coursework as part of her response.

What might inspection, at best, achieve? It should provide an informed analysis of a school, comprehensive and more detached and reliable than even the most effective self evaluation systems. Its supporters would claim that for this reason inspection is an essential part of any evaluation of education and that to dispense with it would be rather like confining medical diagnosis merely to external or superficial symptoms.

Inspection will establish whether children's education entitlement is being received. It will affirm effective schools and good teachers. There seems to be some evidence that inspection helps many teachers be more confident about their skills and capacity; revitalised and assured about their work.

Intentionally or not, inspection can unite staff who may have lacked a common purpose, help them to appreciate their interdependence and the value of mutually supportive corporate effort. It can redefine targets and identify programmes for educational development. It may well provide an impetus in schools for genuine debate about the practical implementation of educational ideas, about the nature of good practice, about the essence of teaching and learning, issues that sometimes have been obscured in rhetoric or cloaked in coyness. It may well be that inspections, publicly reported as they are, will enable people outside education to appreciate more fully the nature of teachers' work and achievement and, probably more than most public services, the extent to which they make themselves accountable.

But, of course, there is the more sombre side of things. Inspection is a tough business. It deals with weaknesses, shortcomings and omissions. The sheer size of the enquiry it imposes upon schools is formidable. Most daunting of all, it identifies failing schools to the world at large. It is the notion of this that perhaps most of all haunts teachers, quite without foundation for the overwhelming majority of them.

There are educationists who strongly reject such public labelling, likening it to the futility of attempting to improve children's performance by ritual rebuke before their peers. Others argue that in the absence of a formal inspection system, failing institutions can go undetected for years, shortchanging generations of young people. Certainly anyone with experience of seriously failing schools is likely to agree they are dismal places for all concerned, and the quicker they are transformed the better.

How much stress is inspection causing? I have no statistical evidence to refer to, but there is little doubt that this rigorous and inescapable process, fallible (no matter how hard we try), basing judgments largely on a short period of time, constrained from taking account of what may have been achieved in the past, making its judgments public, and inevitably encouraging comparisons between schools, can be for many people a very demanding and harrowing experience. "What I found devastating about it," said a headteacher, "was that it disposed of 10 years of my life in a few pages of rather drab prose."

For some, the stress and anxiety may be damaging, even unbearable, and there are those who will argue that it is neither acceptable nor profitable to put people in such a situation. Equally, however, it could be argued that the relative few who are overwhelmed by the notion and business of inspection would, anyway, not be able easily to sustain the strains likely to be created by the severe demands of contemporary education.

The fact is that the teaching profession is probably more resilient, more aware of its achievement, more confident about its quality and corporate strength than it has ever been. I believe it is secure enough to take external evaluation and use it for the purpose of further development.

Many years ago, reviving the inspection process for an LEA, I tried to persuade a group of heads to take part in an experiment in which they would form teams from their staffs to inspect each others' schools. They were too diffident to do so. I believe the current generation of teachers has the confidence to undertake the business of inspection for themselves, and have to hand worked-out and generally agreed principles and processes, as exemplified by the Handbook for the Inspection of Schools, that would help them to do so.

When teachers can see inspection in this light, as an instrument to be used for their own professional development and to enhance the education of the children they teach, undesirable stress and anxiety will be eliminated or reduced to manageable proportions.

Bill Laar is a registered inspector. Questions may be addressed to him co The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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