OPINION / Ready for inspection

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The Independent Online
The new system of inspection introduced last September aims to inspect every primary school every four years. Once every 200 years was nearer the mark under the old arrangements.

The benefits of regular school inspections are obvious. Good schools will receive the praise they deserve: less successful ones can be helped to become more effective. All schools, however rigorously they monitor their performance, will benefit from a periodic external check. Parents will have access to reports on different schools to help them to choose the best one for their child. The process of inspection contributes, moreover, to the new climate of accountability which in itself is helping to raisestandards.

This key element of the Government's educational reforms is vitally important: The difficulties experienced by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) in meeting its target for primary school inspections have rightly received a great deal of attention.

We are taking action on a number of fronts to solve these problems. First, I have decided to scale down the number of schools called for inspection in the summer term 1995. I consider it unacceptable for Ofsted to notify a school that it is to be inspected and then fail to provide an inspection date. I am confident that the 800-plus primary schools called for inspection next summer will be visited and I want to take this opportunity to apologise to those that have been let down in the autumn and spring terms for the unnecessary stress they have experienced.

Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI) will lead those inspections which we cannot let under the normal arrangements. I took this step partly because of the moral obligation we have to the schools called for inspection, but also in the hope that a number of inspectors who have shown reluctance to lead inspections will become more active after the experience of working with HMI. It will also give us valuable first-hand experience of the strengths and weaknesses of the inspection framework.

Looking to the future, we have also made changes to the arrangements for the letting of contracts and the training programmes we offer intending inspectors. The former should make it easier for local education authorities and private contractors to put together a programme covering a year, while the latter should encourage more people to train to become inspectors.

I am particularly keen to encourage serving heads and teachers to become inspectors. A teacher may wish to participate in only one or two inspections a year, but we think that the process would be significantly strengthened by the involvement of inspectors who are themselves teaching or running schools. We think, moreover, that the training and inspection experience should prove a potent form of professional development.

It has become very clear talking to inspectors and heads that we also need to review the inspection process. I will launch a consultation in the new year to see whether, as one headteacher put it to me, we have "a secondary sledgehammer to crack a primary nut." This will mean examining the burden of administration and paperwork from the point of view of both school and inspector. It will mean thinking about the focus of the inspection process to ensure that the final product concentrates on the quality of teaching and the standards of pupil achievement - and does so in a way that is of practical use to the school.

This consultation and the implementation of any changes that flow from it will probably occupy most of 1995. In the meantime, Ofsted will publish early in the new year some guidance to inspectors and schools aimed at reducing the administrative burden.

One important message for schools is to stop producing reams of policy documents before the inspection. While concise policies on key issues are certainly important, an abundance of paper is no substitute for high-quality teaching. To burn the midnight oil in an attempt to paper over the cracks is almost certainly a waste of time and emotional energy.

I am sometimes told schools need advice and support, not inspection, or, alternatively, that the punitive thrust of the Ofsted inspection ought to be abandoned in favour of praise and encouragement. Certainly, praise is important and I am anxious to findways to sing the achievements of schools in less stilted and bureaucratic language than that used in some reports at present. But to be of any use advice must be informed, and this means that it is based on a prior analysis of what is going on in a school.

Of course, schools should be able to buy in expertise to help effect change, if they need it. But let us keep this in perspective: improvements will come when there is a will to change, when there is a clear understanding of what needs to be changed and how the change is to be achieved. External support may or may not be required. What is clear is that the new system of inspection will ensure that the first two of these three necessary conditions are in place.

The writer is HM Chief Inspector of Schools.

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