Education: View from here

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Teacher training is being inspected to death... one student being seen for one lesson could lead to a university being threatened with the closure of its course. This is utter madness

Unless universities take a firm stand about the inspection of teacher training by the Office for Standards in Education, the whole of higher education will suffer. For too long universities have sat back, muttering rather than acting decisively. Ofsted has trampled through the void.

Teacher training is being inspected to death. There are primary sweeps and secondary sweeps. Barely a week goes by without another inspector being on the premises. Sweep sweep, no time to teach.

Recently I was observed by my ninth different inspector in a year. The tenth is due shortly. I don't know what the British all-comers' record is, but I must be near it.

My work got top grades, as did my university, so why complain? The answer is simple. I am in favour of rigorous external inspection, because universities receive public funding, so the public has a right to know about quality. That much is beyond dispute. But I am strongly opposed to the disgraceful shambles to which universities are currently exposed.

Many staff in university schools of education, experts in the field of educational evaluation, find themselves on the receiving end of a process that has no justification. Ofsted is a body which is completely discredited in the eyes of many teachers in schools and this has received considerable press attention. Yet the equivalent disgruntlement within universities is probably unknown to the public.

Last year primary teacher training courses were inspected. This year they are being inspected again. The head of Ofsted's teacher-training team wrote to the Times Educational Supplement saying that this was a further inspection, not a re-inspection. Teacher trainers would have been in hysterics, had they had any laughter left in them.

The further, subsequent, second, follow-up, ensuing, (but definitely not re-) inspection, was first signalled in a newspaper article. Advance leaks about Ofsted policies and action frequently appear in certain newspapers, before either inspectors themselves or their victims know anything about it.

It should be a matter of great concern that journalists are being told these things first. Who does the leaking? Procedures should be invoked to root out the leakers.

Primary inspection sweep number two involved an elaborate set of ratings, seven cells for mathematics and seven for language, a total of 14 grades altogether on a one-to-four scale. Even a single grade 4 could mean the threat of closure of the course.

Now here is the rub. The cell in question was given a low grade because Ofsted inspectors disagreed with the ratings of teaching proficiency given by the supervising schools and university tutors. Yet Ofsted inspectors usually see only one lesson given by a student. This one-off judgment is then set against that arrived at over a whole year by tutors and classroom teachers.

I have done classroom observation research for 30 years and the frailty of single-lesson judgments is well known. One student seen by one inspector for one lesson could lead to a university being threatened with the closure of its whole course. This is utter madness.

No other profession would stand for such a situation, but in education this is the norm, as Ofsted roars out of control.

Many inspectors themselves admit privately that they are deeply unhappy with the process. They also say they are concerned about the quality of some of the additional inspectors drafted in. Two inspectors told me they were convinced the process would end up in court and that Ofsted would not have a leg to stand on.

One university has already taken legal advice. I think universities should club together and make a big legal case out of the whole shabby mess, rather than expect each individual university to foot the bill. They would win hands down. Don't even bother calling expert witnesses to argue that a one-off brief observation has little validity, it is self-evident. Much more rigorous scrutiny should be required.

If universities do merely roll over and acquiesce, the consequences are clear. Today teacher training; tomorrow, what subject is exempt from such dubious procedures?

The writer is professor of education at Exeter University.