opinion: Let's take a good look at this business of inspection

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The Independent Online
If the inspection of schools is to be effective, then the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) must be closed down and reconstituted as a co-ordinated and credible national and local force for improvement.

For more than 150 years the inspection of schools was the responsibility of Her Majesty's Inspectorate (HMI). Kenneth Clarke reduced HMI to a shell. In its place came a privatised business, with school inspections put out to tender. Training for inspectors was a one-week course.

Many inspection reports are far too imprecise to be helpful. School inspection has fallen far behind schedule, and secondary specialists, many with no direct experience of primary teaching, are undertaking primary inspections.

The recommendations in Ofsted reports concentrate too much on structure and administration and not enough on what happens in the classroom. Worse, inspection as a private profit-making business has led to several complaints from schools about inspectors touting for consultancy work, leaving their business cards.

Tim Brighouse, the Chief Education Officer for Birmingham, proposes five ways of improving inspection:

1. The Office for Standards in Education should be closed down; there should be a new national and local structure for school inspection. Inspection teams should be led by a member of HMI, whose numbers should be restored to the 450 they used to be. Local authority inspectors should be seconded to work with HMI for 20 per cent of their time. Selected heads and teachers should be released for up to two years to join teams, so inspection could be followed up with advice and support.

2. Although a school's structures, plans and administrative arrangements are of interest, the main focus of school inspection should be on improving teaching and learning in the classroom.

3. There should be a better framework for inspection, with core features that applied to all schools, and options that recognise schools are different from each other .

4. To secure the full commitment of the headteachers, governors and parents, there should be a proper place for a school's self-evaluation. Schools and teachers should be encouraged to set and achieve their own targets for improvement.

5. Schools that are running well should be given a five-year licence, allowing them to carry on under self-monitoring procedures. At the end of this five-year period, a school would receive a shorter inspection. Its five-year licence could then be extended for another five years. After each 10-year period there would be a full inspection.

Inspection should be a public service, not a private profit-making business. It should concentrate on the classroom. It should involve self-evaluation as well as external scrutiny. It should combine the best of local and national inspection traditions. It should be fair but rigorous, tailored to the school under scrutiny. It should challenge schools to improve what they do, then license them to do it. That is not what happens now.


The writer is professor of Education at the University of Exeter. A pamphlet, `A New Model for School Inspection', by Ted Wragg and Tim Brighouse, is available from the Media and Resources Centre, School of Education, Exeter University, Exeter EX1 2LU, price pounds 2.50 (including post and packing).