Education: Tough drill for the standards police: From next autumn inspectors will visit more schools and make more detailed assessments. Judith Judd dropped in on a training course

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The Independent Online
IN A Yorkshire hotel, a group of would- be inspectors debate the merits of a business studies lesson they have just seen on video.

'I felt that about half the class were disengaged.'

'Children were pressing questions, communicating ideas and working co-operatively.'

'There was no rigour. The work was more suited to top juniors than GCSE.'

'The children were self-assured and showed analytical skills.'

The group are among hundreds of would-be inspectors who are being trained for the Government's new independent inspection teams. By the end of January, 1,187 people will have attended courses designed to prepare a huge army of inspectors for their work, starting in secondary schools next autumn and primary schools the year after.

The Government is introducing the regime because Her Majesty's Inspectorate (HMI) was only ever able to produce full public reports on a small selection of schools; most would not be visited for a full inspection more than once in several decades. Only one in four local education authorities carried out inspections, which were rarely as detailed and rigorous as a full HMI report.

Under the new system, teams of inspectors will tender for contracts, awarded by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), which has replaced HMI. This system will lead to schools being inspected every four years, with the reports and a plan of action being published for parents.

About a third of the candidates to become independent inspectors are women and 87 per cent are former local authority inspectors and advisers - paradoxically they are the very people who have been castigated by traditionalist Conservative politicians for leading schools astray.

The week-long courses are run by former HMI inspectors, now employed by Ofsted. Those who successfully complete the course can become team inspectors or go on to a further week's practical training to become 'registered inspectors' (team leaders).

Trainees start by watching a video of a real lesson, and filling in sheets with boxes for comments on the quality of teaching, quality of learning and standards of achievement - which is harder than it looks. 'Does working in a team go in the quality-of-learning or the standards box?' one asks. 'How do you know whether the children are learning from just watching a lesson?'

The HMI leading the group explains that inspectors will also talk to the children and look at their work. Another group hears that you can have a lesson in which teaching quality is high, learning quality is good and standards are poor (an inner-city school that does well with low achievers, for example).

Later in the day comes the most controversial part. Each section of the sheet has to be graded from 1 (very good: many good features, some outstanding) to 5 (poor: many shortcomings); 3 is satisfactory: sound, but unremarkable. At the bottom of the sheet the inspector must give the lesson an overall grade and may resort to an extra number, 6, if the evidence is conflicting. The afternoon's exercise is to grade lessons in English, maths and science from lesson notes that describe quality of teaching, quality of learning and standards.

Differences of professional judgement surface again:

'This teacher is only a 4. She's fussing over the pupils and giving them too much information and just sitting at the front.'

'It's a 3. She's under strain. It's a low- ability fourth year.'

'If it's a low-ability fourth year, why is she just sitting at the front?'

'It's a 3. They're behaving well, doing the task they've been set and going to the front when they want to know something.'

'Oh, all right, it's a 3.'

In fact, agreement about the allocation of grades is surprisingly close. All nine in the group I am watching agree that a French teacher on the video should get a 1 or a 2. The two modern language specialists are among the three who plump for

a 2. Towards the end of the week, the trainer promises, there will be more on how to reach a consensus.

By late afternoon the trainees are reeling under the weight of information and piles of documents: papers for the case- study school alone are five inches thick. It is test time (or 'task' time to use the official phrase). 'I haven't done a test for 30 years,' says one. 'I can't write without a word processor,' complains another. One suggests cheerfully that the pass rate must be pretty high because the Government is so anxious to get enough inspectors, but nerves are on edge, despite continual reassurance from the trainers. The course includes six timed tests of about an hour.

Many local authorities will discard their inspectors and advisers when the new inspection system begins, so future employment for many of the inspection trainees may depend on their successful completion of the course. The nine members of HMI running the course will mark the papers and send recommendations to the Office for Standards in Education, which decides who passes. By the end of November four out of 466 trainees had failed.

Trainees on the Yorkshire course had earlier been tested on reading a school's curriculum plan - a series of obscure hieroglyphs to the uninitiated. The plan is part of the information a school submits so that inspectors can analyse its strengths and weaknesses. Only a few have not deciphered a curriculum plan before. 'It's a broad and balanced curriculum but they may not be complying with the law on RE,' one says. 'There doesn't seem to be enough time for music,' says another.

One trainee asks if it is an inspector's job to question why the school allows its pupils to do only 8 GCSEs when some schools do 12 or 13. The HMI training the group thinks it is a matter of parental interest rather than inspectoral concern. Then a trainee points out that the question might be asked at the parents' meetings that all new inspectors will be required to hold. Well, concedes the trainer, the inspectors may have to raise the matter with the school.

The programme for the rest of the week includes sessions on how to determine standards of attendance and behaviour, how to decide whether a school is giving value for money, how to report findings, and a test in which inspectors must give an oral report to a school.

Is it possible to train someone to inspect a school in a week? Course trainers point out that that is not what they are trying to do: their job is to instruct new inspectors in the criteria they must use in inspecting a school. Ofsted adds that the course is very intensive and rigorous, and that all the trainees are starting off with extensive knowledge of education and team leadership. Those applying to be registered inspectors spend a further week of practical experience on an inspection with HMI.

However, even for those with 10 years' experience in local authorities, the new rules provide a much tighter and more detailed framework. One retired former local authority inspector on the Yorkshire course says: 'It was an authority with a very good inspection system, but nothing like the detail involved in this was required. We didn't make the distinction between the quality of teaching and learning which we're being asked to make here.'

A consultant, who has experience of independent school inspection, adds: 'The course is very demanding. Only a quarter of the detail would be required for an independent school inspection.'