Education: When an inspector calls at an independent school

Inspections in the independent sector have been criticised for being too `cosy'. Earlier this year, the CfBT, the largest private contractor for state school inspections, published a report accusing independent schools of mutual back-slapping and misleading parents. We present two views: first, Tony Evans and Margaret Rudland defend the system. Then, one teacher's disturbing experience: a week's inspection with a puzzling outcome

Private reports can be more critical

Whatever the outcome of the next general election, independent schools will defend certain fundamental principles vigorously, as their ability to provide education in the manner they believe to be the most appropriate may otherwise be put in jeopardy.

Among their priorities is the principle of independent inspection. Such inspections resolutely set the highest standards and are considered by those inspected as anything but a comfortable experience.

Independent inspections conducted under the auspices of the Independent Schools Joint Council (ISJC) were introduced after the then Department of Education and Science ceased regular visits in 1978. Characteristically, independent schools showed ingenuity and professionalism in designing their own format, and such inspections remain the most demanding and the most cost-effective solution, significantly less expensive but no less testing than those conducted by Ofsted, which itself has insufficient resources to inspect independent schools.

There is a critical need for independent schools to be inspected, and this principle has been enthusiastically embraced by ISJC members and welcomed by all political parties.

Yet there is also a need to avoid any risk of politicised inspection under the auspices of either central government or of local education authorities in the future. The protection of diversity and distinctiveness can be guaranteed only if the independent sector undertakes its own critical self-assessment, except in cases where Ofsted sees fit to intervene.

Indeed, in many respects, independent inspections will be more thorough in scope than the Ofsted format after September 1997, when the latter will concentrate only on core subjects and up to four selected additional subjects.

Constant improvement and scrutiny of the quality of learning have become unwavering objectives of independent inspections, and the high calibre of inspectors and practising classroom teachers with sharp insight into the independent school has drawn praise from observers from HMI and Ofsted.

Far from being anodyne and comfortable, the ISJC's inspections have been critical of certain aspects of high-performing schools. It is only reasonable to remind ourselves that, since they pay the fees, independent schools' parents may rapidly register their discontent by withdrawing their children.

Yet the independent sector, as with the full publication of examination results to parents, is frequently in the vanguard of progress, and the fact that the performance of its schools at GCSE and A-level is predominant has not lulled such schools into any sense of complacency.

Certain criticisms have been levelled at the format of independent inspections and positive suggestions that might enhance the system will not be disregarded.

First, the objectivity of independent inspections has been called into question, and such a doubt may be the understandable reaction of an outsider. This may be compounded by the fact that reports are not uniformly published in full and because parents may not see the minute detail but receive a summary in which the main findings are outlined. Full reports are, however, available, but experience indicates that a more succinct format is preferred.

Ironically, reports can be more incisive and less inhibited in practice if those with proper professional insight receive them and act upon them in confidence. The effect of a report drafted for public consumption is all too frequently that it becomes bland and generalised, avoiding contentious issues. Matters of complex professional debate can be addressed confidentially to governors and heads without the danger of public misinterpretation or uninformed hyperbole.

A second issue of possible criticism is the public meeting with parents. In our view such a meeting seems wise, and where this is impracticable, as in boarding schools, a consultative questionnaire could be offered. Independent schools view inspection as a positive teaming experience, which can offer invaluable and sophisticated lessons for the development of the school and, incidentally, for the inspectors themselves in their capacity as teachers and administrators.

Thus a constructive exchange of ideas is guaranteed and it is not uncommon for a school with nationally outstanding results to be criticised on minor aspects of style or curricular theory that would not find their way into any public document under an alternative system.

All inspections should, however, be led by HMIs or Ofsted-registered inspectors so that no doubts about objectivity remain. In implementing such a sensible recommendation, independent schools would nevertheless need to recognise the diminishing number of HMIs and the already stretched resources of Ofsted.

Moreover, it is fair to mention that former heads can be sharper in their criticism than HMI, as independent schools have experienced.

The most powerful recommendation that the different independent associations could make is that their inspection systems become unified, combining the strongest features from each. Each association has its own needs and within these the requirements of urban day, rural boarding, single-sex, coeducational, preparatory or secondary schools will differ, but inspection teams could be so composed from wider resources that still greater objectivity and expertise are conferred.

Ofsted is monitoring inspection systems: there will be suggestions for improvement, possibly as discussed above, but no one should doubt that the principal independent associations already conduct the vital exercise of inspection in anything but a secretive and uncritical fashion.

Tony Evans is chair of Headmasters' Conference,and head of Portsmouth Grammar School. Margaret Rudland is president of the Girls' School Association and head of Godolphin and Latymer School, Hammersmith, London.

Were they really talking about us?

Our inspection was conducted last term and we had been expecting it for a year. The trouble was that no one really knew what was going to happen, even while it was happening.

We had seen a television programme about a comprehensive school in the Midlands that had been ripped apart by a team from Ofsted. One teacher taped it and the cassette went the rounds, surreptitiously, as if it were some sort of snuff video.

That was when the panic set in. The sight of a senior department head reduced to tears on the television screen was enough to make us all start asking questions, but there were precious few answers.

At staff meetings, the head was first evasive and finally said that a deputy head was going to be in charge of the preparation phase. We were so confused after the preparation that it would have been better if we had be left in complete ignorance. Instead of fact, we had rumour.

Somebody heard somewhere that the inspection team would be looking at all of our marking. The piles of prep books and pyramids of GCSE coursework were attacked immediately. The red pens slashed at marking from the previous term and soon the staff room looked like the garage which hosted the St Valentine's Day Massacre.

Inspectors would want to see our plans of work. Within a week said plans materialised from thin air, carefully outlining our work for the next term and the past year. Rumour quickly became a tidal wave of conjecture and there matters rested until the day the team arrived.

We were all ushered into the assembly hall, curious to see what they were like. Ten middle-aged men were paraded by the head who mumbled the usual felicitations and wished them well in their labours. There were a few introductory comments, which no one heard, and we all went about our business walking on nails and sporting plastic smiles.

For the next four days, classes were observed, prep books scrutinised, mark books scanned and questions evaded.

An atmosphere gradually emerged where relations between inspectors and teachers became complimentary and cosy. There were a few shocks. One biology teacher realised that his inspector knew nothing about the subject, but he just maintained the smile and kept his mouth shut.

Other subject teachers had to give a syllabus to an inspector who, like a child who hasn't done his prep, had "left his at home". Friday arrived, there was an afternoon of debriefings for heads of department and the inspection team dashed for their cars.

For the rest of the term there was silence while we waited for the final report which was "confidential to the headmaster and the chairman of the governors". A summary of the full report would be given to parents and those with a need to know, presumably the individual teacher.

We could not believe what we read. The summary bore no relationship to the school in which we work. Some of us thought that the inspectors had muddled the reports and that we had received the report of another school. Some heads of department had to go to the head to protest that the report said the exact opposite of what they had been told during the debriefing. The inspection did not highlight any of our real problems and its suggestions for improvement were impossible to implement in the structure we have.

It recommended that each department have its own work station but never mentioned how this was to be achieved in a school with five physical sites. The whole tone of the report was so watered down that we could not see the point of the whole exercise.

A hierarchy of anarchy decides school policy as a reaction to parental pressure and then changes the policy the next time there is a complaint. No teacher is ever approached by a governor and it is injurious to one's career to make the first move.There is nothing the teacher can do to improve either one's own lot or the school. You can move schools, but that is merely changing cages. You can speak out, but that is treason.

We have all experienced the same stresses as teachers in the state sector, without any of the support. In the past year we have had early retirements, nervous breakdowns and a suicide. None of this was mentioned in the inspectors' report, even though they were told. The result was that we were given a clean bill of health, and who are we to disagree with it? It is not that the lunatics have taken over the asylum, it is more that the counterfeiters have taken over the mint.

The writer is a teacher in an independent school.

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