Education: Two sides to every story

Headteachers may think they know best, but Ofsted claims its role as watchdog provides a much-needed perspective on classroom realities
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The Independent Culture
In his recent annual report, the Chief Inspector of Schools commented: "Too many headteachers do not really know what is happening in the classrooms of their schools." Chris Woodhead goes on to suggest that heads' ignorance can be explained by their lack of attention to the systematic evaluation of both the quality of teaching and standards achieved by pupils. Without this, he suggests, development planning is impossible and target setting little more than pious aspiration.

There is evidence to support his point of view, because Ofsted's own 1998 study of 100 primary and secondary schools found that schools had a reasonably accurate view of their strengths, but much less insight into their weaknesses. Headteachers, however, believe that they are fully aware of their schools' strengths and weaknesses.

A typical comment from a head was: "I am convinced that inspection is an expensive process which only tells you what you already know." Headteachers' motives for adopting this stance is not difficult to understand. To believe otherwise would be an admission that they were unaware of shortcomings which the inspectors were able to identify as a result of their brief visit to the school.

During our recently completed Nuffield Foundation-funded research project, at the Institute of Education, University of London, we asked primary heads whose schools were about to be inspected to write down the two most important key issues for action that they believed would emerge from their inspection. Afterwards, we asked them to list all of their key issues or enclose a copy of the relevant page from their inspection report. Headteachers' pre-inspection predictions were compared with the key issues in the report. A school predicting that its "provision of information technology" and "the role of governors" would be the two most important key issues for action, but whose actual key issues were about assessment, management, provision for able pupils and the monitoring of teaching, would score zero.

When heads' predictions were compared with the outcomes of the actual inspection, it was discovered that just over 40 per cent had listed two "most important" key issues which could not be found in any form on the list that appeared in their report and 46 per cent had correctly identified just one. Only 11 per cent of the sample of primary heads had listed two issues that were both in the inspectors' report. What is more, most heads believed that their report was accurate and that their key issues raised important matters.

Does this sound like game, set and match to the Chief Inspector? Do heads really not know what is going on in their own schools? And what does this say about self-evaluation and its chances, in the future, of contributing to the outcomes of inspection?

Viewed from the schools' perspective, we might ask why matters that concern heads before the inspection (and are predicted to become important key issues) are not picked up and given high priority by the inspectors. It is possible that the dialogue that takes place in the inspection week convinces heads of the importance of Ofsted's rather than their own findings. It may be that every possible weakness occurs to heads in the anxiety- ridden months before an inspection. This could explain why they feel their inspection report was unsurprising. But it is important to ask why inspectors are not more influenced by the school's self-evaluation. Do they feel inadequate if they merely identify areas for development already listed in a school's development plan?

Some of the schools that received very good reports felt that inspectors needed to find something to say. Their headteachers had not been able to predict the outcomes of their inspection and had given their key issues a low priority. One head commented: "They are not the most exciting set of key issues and we don't want to get into knee-jerk reactions working on an action plan." Another head commented: "The report was not terribly relevant. It distracted us from more important matters."

It may be that Ofsted inspections tend to be "done to" rather than "done for" schools and that inspectors' desire to maintain a proper "distance" prevents them from taking more of a lead from schools. Would a different relationship between teachers and inspectors produce more agreement about the school's priorities?

Inspectors have the advantage of having worked in a large number of schools, of making systematic observations and of using a variety of evidence with which to make judgements. They are also able to compare notes with colleagues who have collected much the same evidence using the same criteria, but their observations are made over a brief time span when the school is not working normally. Schools have access to much more evidence, but it is rarely collected systematically or analysed with the same degree of care or detachment.

It is easy to assume that "inspectors know best" but, equally, it cannot be assumed that school self-evaluation can make a significant contribution to school development if it relies on the assumption that "headteachers know best". If the anticipation of an Ofsted inspection became a less threatening experience, then inspection might be perceived as a service to schools which most heads would welcome. Free from the risk of public censure, headteachers might want to abandon costly pre-inspection reviews and elaborate preparations and, rather than "light touch" inspections, would be likely to demand as thorough an inspection as could be afforded. It is in this climate that schools would be more willing to provide "warts and all" evidence of their own, apply rigour to systematic self-evaluation, and be less likely to dismiss the outcomes of an Ofsted inspection as "telling us what we already know".

The authors are based at the Management Development Centre, Institute of Education, University of London. The main findings of the Nuffield Foundation-funded research project will be the subject of an upcoming conference entitled `The Self-inspecting School?'. Further details are available from the Institute's conference office on 0171-612-6017