Personally speaking

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The Independent Online
Two recent reports should cause education policy-makers to take stock. First, the revelations of an Oxford academic who until recently had worked as an adviser to the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). He had confirmed to a conference audience that the controversial Ofsted report on literacy in three London boroughs had been given a negative slant in its final drafting. The second is a memorandum from the head of research at Ofsted admitting that the estimated figure of 15,000 "bad" teachers was based on an unjustified extrapolation from a sample of primary schools.

These revelations are significant: those who have questioned the methods of this non-ministerial department were clearly right to do so. Ofsted, set up hurriedly under the 1992 Education Act, replaced the 150-year-old highly respected corps of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools (HMI). Ever since its creation, Ofsted has been unhealthily placed on a pedestal and encouraged to criticise the education service in a series of ex cathedra pronouncements and newspaper articles, some of which we now know are based on partial truths and misreading of evidence. Although such a style of operation is anathema to the civil service, the poorly drafted legislation of the Education Act provided too little accountability. Even a secretary of state of Gillian Shephard's calibre has been unable to stem Ofsted's populist punditry or halt its rising costs.

The impression has been given, on meagre evidence, that large numbers of heads and teachers are incompetent and cannot be trusted to work in the interests of pupils. As a result, the confidence of the public has been reduced and that of the profession undermined.

Any questioning of Ofsted's methods has been dismissed by the agency and its powerful protectors as simply the voice of "producer interest". Teachers have too often been vilified or patronised ("the poor bloody infantry"). The standards of teacher education in universities and colleges have been misrepresented, contrary to the evidence of Ofsted's own inspectors.

As we move towards the first government of the 21st century, it is imperative that we overcome these problems. Any new government will need to act fast to prevent further damage. The following four actions could begin to restore confidence.

First, Ofsted should revert to its former identity as Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools and be re-established - with reasonable autonomy - as part of the Department for Education and Employment. Not only will this enable considerable savings to be made, by cutting expensive duplication of administration, but it will provide a proper channel of accountability. The programme of inspections should be modified so that the teaching profession can play a greater part in the process. The practice of permitting commercial businesses to undertake inspections should be scrapped. Instead, local education authorities should provide inspectors or seconded teachers for agreed periods. This would provide better-quality control of the inspection teams and a mechanism for disseminating good practice. The positive aspects of the Ofsted experience, such as the work with failing schools, should be preserved and built upon.

Second, a General Teaching Council - made up of practitioners, government and LEA officials and representative parents - should be established with responsibility for standards of entry to the profession, the discipline of members and the duty to offer advice on training needs.

Third, the confusion over the future of local education authorities must be resolved. The Government has adopted a stop/go attitude, at times welcoming their existence but using them to carry the blame for problems and, at other times, deliberately weakening them by removing duty after duty. National education systems, even in a small country (as the Republic of Ireland has discovered), need a layer of authority between the individual schools and the government ministry. There can be little justification for scrapping democratically elected authorities and replacing them with local ministry offices or unelected quangos.

Fourth, a new government must attend to the crisis of funding facing too many schools. The savings from abolishing quangos will help but big money is bound to be tight for a new government. Unless some additional resources are found, however, the priority status for education professed by the main parties will look like election rhetoric.

These suggestions will not repair all the harm that has been done over the last few years but they will buy time in which schools and teachers can refocus their energy on the important task of helping as many young people as possible to experience high-quality schooling and improve their performance. A significant lifting of standards will only occur through a combination of support and pressure. Competition has its merits - as schools well understand - but the market cannot drive all aspects of the service. Collaboration and trust must also play a part. Modern industry seems to have discovered this; surely the most human of endeavours - that which involves learning and teaching - could do likewise? The writer is director of the Institute of Education, University of London