Let the children speak

While every child has the right to a good education, few are able to contribute to the process. That's about to change, says Mike Tomlinson, the Chief Inspector of Schools
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The Independent Online

Last week I set out for consultation a wide range of ideas for the next cycle of school inspections. I welcome this opportunity to explain why I think our proposals will add value to the inspection process.

By 2003 the national system of regular school inspection and published reports will have been with us for 10 years. It is rare to find anyone who does not agree that inspection has an important part to play in the raising of achievement. We have made many improvements to inspection since 1993, but that does not mean that we cannot do better, and have an even greater, more positive impact.

Inspection is important to pupils and parents, teachers and governors, businesses and local communities. All those groups have a right to expect that Ofsted will support their aspirations. I make no apology for stressing that the right of every pupil to receive a good education must take precedence. I share the Education Secretary Estelle Morris's passion for reducing inequality, allowing all pupils to achieve their full potential and become confident citizens. We still have some way to go. If major improvements in secondary education in particular are to be secured and sustained, inspection must be an essential part of the package.

My proposals are designed to meet three aims. First, to reduce the burden of inspection on individual schools, including the associated paperwork. Second, to have schools involved in setting the inspection agenda and, finally, finding ways of involving parents, pupils and the community more in the inspection process. I believe that the changes can make an even more effective contribution to school improvement. They will work in a number of ways to achieve that. But one common theme is our wish to take more account of the views of the partners in school education. If inspection involves pupils, parents, schools and communities more directly, they are all much more likely to respond positively to inspection results by acting together to celebrate success, or collaborating to tackle problems and secure improvement.

So, we will take more account of pupils views by extending the use of surveys to allow all pupils to have their say. This will emphatically not be inviting pupils to comment on (or grade, as has been suggested) individual teachers. Some schools already use pupil questionnaires, others have councils to hear pupils' views, so there is nothing startling in this proposal. We will get parents more involved by responding to their views about inspection timing, and by encouraging schools to have meetings after their inspection to discuss the findings with parents.

We will listen to schools' views about the issues which would benefit from inspection and allow them to choose one inspection topic based on their own self-evaluation. And we will make sure that those who work with schools locally, for example, business sponsors or local councils, are given an opportunity to let inspectors know their views. These will be sought with the school's help and all responses will be shared. I aim to make the process fully transparent.

In these and other ways set out in the consultation paper, we will be developing a model of inspection with greater involvement of schools and others. That should ensure that the changes which follow inspection are swift but sustainable.

All this does not mean any weakening of independence and rigour. Alongside the one topic which the school selects for inspection, there will be topics which emerge from examination and test results as significant strengths or weaknesses. We will look at those, whatever the school's agenda. By concentrating on the key issues in each school, we will be able to reduce the amount of inspection while increasing its impact and, therefore, the cost-effectiveness of the inspection programme. As we said in January 2000 when we introduced the concept of short inspections, lighter touch does not mean softer touch. All Ofsted inspection will continue to involve the essential elements which make it such a powerful process: first hand fact-finding, rigorous analysis, clear judgements, and open reporting.

As part of my drive to reduce the bureaucratic burden associated with inspection I have written to all head teachers this week stressing that they should not ask teachers to do extra work just to prepare for inspection. School inspection will never be stress-free for teachers. Independent scrutiny never is. But it is good for all of us, as I remind myself when I visit the Education Select Committee. Inspection can be good for teachers in a number of ways. It can praise their personal strengths and give them insights into how to improve their practice, through direct feedback after a lesson has been observed. We propose to give more emphasis and time to that feedback in future.

It can also identify issues which need to be tackled and so prompt government support and action – as with literacy and numeracy, or the recent recognition of the importance of behaviour support. And it can collect evidence to inform important national debates. This term, for example, we are asking schools about teacher recruitment and retention, and about the sources of unhelpful bureaucracy. Inspection evidence should end unproductive argument about the facts and promote the debate about solutions.

The consultation is launched and it is now time for us in Ofsted to listen and learn. Consultation closes on 30 November and I hope that as many people as possible – and especially the thousands of parents who visit our website every week to look at school reports – will read our proposals and respond to them. I will be talking to schools and teachers on most days this term. We will also be holding regional seminars around the country for teachers, headteachers and governors. I look forward to a healthy and constructive debate.