'Inspections harmed by our Chief's outbursts'

Woodhead's public attacks on teachers hindered attempts to improve standards, writes a schools inspector
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The Independent Online

It is not just teachers who will breathe a sigh of relief at the departure of Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools. Most of the thousands of inspectors who go into schools week after week on behalf of Ofsted will also raise a silent cheer.

It is not just teachers who will breathe a sigh of relief at the departure of Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools. Most of the thousands of inspectors who go into schools week after week on behalf of Ofsted will also raise a silent cheer.

It is readily accepted that inspection is a stressful business for heads and teachers, but it can be hard for inspectors too. It is never easy to sit opposite a headteacher who has given 15 years or so of their life to a school to tell them their school is failing, because of their mismanagement.

What nobody needed was to spend hours at the beginning of an inspection mending the damage caused by the public utterances of the Chief Inspector, being careful not to be publicly disloyal so that your remarks could be used to damage a system that most inspectors believe in.

The aim, which is often mocked by Ofsted's army of critics, has been to raise standards through inspection. In the beginning - before the appointment of Mr Woodhead - this was not always apparent, as reports were couched in negative and often arcane language. Remember too, that the first schools selected in 1992 and 1993 were those considered to be causing the most concern. If anything, inspectors were too soft on them.

But how can you persuade a school that inspectors, staff, governors and parents are on the same side when all that most of them can remember is that Mr Woodhead had said there were 15,000 incompetent teachers who should be sacked?

There was disbelief all round when Tony Blair announced, before he needed to, that he would reappoint the Chief Inspector at a substantially increased salary. Among the most surprised was David Blunkett, who has never wholly approved of Mr Woodhead. It now seems he has won the argument, if belatedly.

The main problem for inspectors with the notorious 15,000 incompetent teachers was that Mr Woodhead claimed he had the evidence from inspection reports. He did not. It was an extrapolation too far. Yet inspectors had to ensure that all their judgements were based on hard evidence. If it was found that they were not, they would be in trouble with their masters in Ofsted and eventually and quite rightly lose the right to work.

There were times when it seemed as if double standards were in operation. Teachers and inspectors alike were beginning to believe Mr Woodhead was more a spokesman for his own increasingly isolated views, rather than for what was actually happening in our schools.

Mr Woodhead's abrasive manner often got in the way of many of his achievements. He has given Ofsted a public recognition and standing that other government agencies do not have. The quality of teaching has risen; schools are now more than ever examining themselves. The Chief Inspector, however, is understood to have resisted the move to school self-evaluation, which Mr Blunkett favoured and which has led to significant improvement.

In the beginning, the imperative was to get the job done, and it was no mean feat to inspect 4,000 primary schools in four years. In the past two years there has been a far greater concern about the quality of inspectors and their reports. About one-third of this year's inspections have been monitored by HMI (Her Majesty's Inspectors of schools), who can terrify inspectors as much as inspectors can terrify teachers.

Inspection is now much more supportive of schools. Inspectors and teachers can now engage in professional dialogue. The rigour remains, hard decisions are taken, but in the best inspections there is trust and an exchange of ideas, which can help schools to improve. And that is what they want to do. The departure of Chris Woodhead may help to make that trust more secure.

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