Opinion: Don't look now, but the free-market Stalinists have their eye on you

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The Independent Online
The spirit of free-market competition, that crucial and quintessential element of the commercial world and the credo of this government, has been introduced into quality assessment of schools. School inspection is big business.

Yet education and business do not easily mix: educational philosophy is sacrificed to commercial philistinism. And as far as the profiteers are concerned, there is dissatisfaction between parties: the undercutting of pitched bids is reducing individual inspectors' fees so as to maintain the profit margin of the educational agency or consultancy.

In addition, there exists the paradox of profits conceivably being made by consultancies controlled by foreign interests keen to enjoy rich pickings from our educational heap.

Most inspectors now live close to the school that they are inspecting. The reason is economy: there are no hotel bills to be paid by the contractor. At the same time there is no benefit of diverse experience - Newcastle schools are unable to profit from the experience of inspectors hailing from London or Manchester. And inspectors from a school's neighbourhood often have local axes to grind.

Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) inspectors are a mixed crowd. Many are retired teachers, heads or deputies, local inspectors, ex-HMIs (Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools) or local advisers. Like the agencies, they are in it for the cash, or, in the case of local inspectors and advisers, because their educational authorities have insisted they inspect. Admittedly the training weeks are rigorous. An intense working day, which requires concentration, attention to detail and the constant need to meet deadlines, means that many fail.

Matters are no better in schools inspected by the Headmasters' Conference, a body representing the leading independent school heads. HMC has now established its own inspection system, which apes Ofsted's and is consequently a similar bureaucratic nightmare. But because it is in-house (inspection teams are made up of retired heads, serving heads and senior teachers), at pounds 6,000 it is considerably cheaper than the Ofsted system, which costs approximately pounds 35,000 per secondary school. However, whereas aspiring inspectors often fail Ofsted training courses, no one seems to fail HMC courses.

Inherent to the HMC system is the hidden agenda of the head whose school is being inspected. After all, most of those in the inspection team are fellow HMC heads, people with whom the head mixes both professionally and socially. It is easy, even without obvious intention, to bias inspector- colleagues' judgements on school issues and individual teachers' performances. The HMC system is far too incestuous and lacks objectivity.

Many inspection reports are in direct conflict with the annual report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead. What do inspectors want, particularly from our prestigious independent schools? Should parents pay fees to the tune of pounds 12,000 a year to boarding schools for their children to receive the same dull menu, served up for the lowest common appetite, that is provided in many state schools? Keep the tried and traditional, they say: eschew newfangledness. Beware the innovators and the trendy marketeers. Parents do not see the business of educating their children as a democratic process: it is a didactic one. Pupil participation should stay at the Socratic level.

Paradoxically, a Stalinist inspection system has been created and a beleaguered teaching force is constantly looking over its shoulder. Ofsted's inspection teams are spot-checked by its central bureau. It is not as if incompetent teachers cannot be identified: they can. Head teachers, deputies and heads of departments all know where the weak links lie.

We are told that the inspection system is in place to improve standards and obtain value for money: teachers must constantly improve performance and results. In Stalinist terms, there is never an optimum: if you've reached 100 per cent in achievement, then you must aim for 110 per cent. The bureaucratic machine will ensure scrutiny and control. It is a peculiar hybrid: a privatised, intensely bureaucratic apparatus with its operative apparatchiks - anathema to free-thinking individualists. It is also, apparently, the result of the Conservative free market in action.

The one clear result of the Ofsted experiment is that, once again, our education service is the victim of radical party dogma. What is there that is conservative about this Conservative government? The inspection systems of both Ofsted and HMC do not work effectively, fail to give taxpayers value for money, and should quickly be replaced. A new government should understand that the teaching profession regards the old HMIs favourably and with nostalgia. Inspection reform is one clear policy for Tony Blair.


The author is an inspector of schools in the state and independent sectors.