So who's failing whom?

As the first Ofsted inspection cycle of secondary schools draws to a close after four years, Lucy Ward asks why the number judged to be failing remains so high, and reports on the grim experience of one school
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"It's like going over the top in the trenches, unarmed," says one headteacher. Another adds: "More nerve-racking than a thousand driving tests in one." Bashfully, a third admits: "Scarier than a wedding night, and considerably less satisfying." They could only be talking about one thing - a visit from the clipboard-carrying ground troops of Ofsted, the schools inspection agency.

The arrival of an Ofsted team for a week of observing, assessing and shining light into a school's darkest corners can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest headteacher. In what other profession can workers expect to be scrutinised so minutely as they demonstrate their skills, quaking after months of fearful anticipation of inspection week?

Where else could a black mark from an inspector potentially lead to a sacking - a trend likely to rise under government plans to accelerate the removal of poor teachers?

No wonder so many heads report "post-Ofsted syndrome" - a sense of exhaustion combined with temporary loss of purpose following an inspection. And they, after all, are the lucky ones.

Far less fortunate are those whose inspection ends with the dreaded warning of failure, swiftly confirmed by a follow-up visit from Her Majesty's Inspectors. For the 2 per cent of schools placed under the euphemistically titled "special measures", an initial Ofsted visit is just the start of months of grind to set things back on course.

Amid all the tales of suffering at the hands of Ofsted, now gaining almost folkloric status among heads and teachers, it might seem strange that such well-documented experiences do not seem to prompt schools further down the inspectors' schedule to learn more from the mistakes of others.

The figures show that as the first inspection cycle of secondary schools draws to a close after four years, the proportion of schools stamped with a failing verdict is not diminishing and may even be showing a marginal upward trend.

The conundrum has not gone unnoticed by Ofsted's school improvement team. The agency believes it does all it can to alert schools in advance to the areas its inspectors will home in on. All schools receive a copy of the inspection framework, and can buy the guidance handbook for inspectors. Earlier this year, Ofsted published a report showing how failing schools had turned round their fortunes.

There is no doubt that many schools carefully scrutinise every available document and learn every lesson from the fate of neighbours - but not all do so.

One theory among the inspectorate goes that schools and local education authorities may deliberately opt to wait for a critical report in order to lay the blame for enforced change at Ofsted's door. "If the reforms to be made are unpopular, it is much easier as a manager to say to staff, `Ofsted says we must,' " says one source.

Long-standing critics of the Ofsted approach to inspection, including Exeter University professor of education Ted Wragg, turn the finger of blame smartly back to the inspectorate itself.

If you start from the premise that there is a problem with a proportion of schools, you end up fitting the figures around it, Professor Wragg says. "A lot of these things are driven politically, just as with the number of bad teachers. If there is an appetite to believe schools are failing then more will indeed fail."

Showing a captive the instruments of torture will not make them confess all if there is nothing to confess, he adds. In fact, the more Ofsted threatens other schools, the less likely they are to respond, just like rebellious pupils under a weak teacher. "Chris Woodhead becomes like a teacher with discipline problems who keeps shouting until the kids take no notice."

George Varnava, acting head at Ashburton High School, Croydon - one of 18 failing schools recently placed on the Government's own sick list - believes struggling institutions become incapable of countering the might of the Ofsted machine. "They are like rabbits caught in the headlights, unable to react." The inspection system, he suggests, fails to take sufficient notice of the wider factors affecting failing schools in their local communities.

David Reynolds, professor of education at Newcastle University and a government adviser on numeracy, offers three possible explanations for the remarkably consistent failure rate. It may be that ineffective schools with serious problems are so deeply troubled they are simply not capable of responding to rational educational policies. Or, it could be that the way good practice is spread around schools does not take account of such schools.

A third problem might be that Ofsted's recipe for improving schools rests too much on short-term goals rather than longer-term strategies, which may not be recognised by inspectors.

The difficulty with all theories is that, it appears, no one has fully researched the common factors among failing schools. Ofsted has looked at how schools under special measures fight their way out, but it is only with the ending this month of the first four-year cycle for secondaries - to end next summer for primaries - that such analysis might be possible.

Meryl Thompson, head of the policy unit at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and contributor to a report on Ofsted entitled "A Better System of Inspection?", believes the statistics show that "improvement through fear and scrutiny" is not working. "It may be that schools have not responded, it may be that the inspection criteria have altered. The trouble is that we really don't know, and if we want to find a better way forward it's time we put this under the microscope"n

The pain of failure is like a bereavement

Breaking the news of a school's Ofsted failure to its staff is like announcing a bereavement, according to Graham Seddon, senior vice- principal at Tamarside Community College, Plymouth.

Mr Seddon knows that feeling from painful experience - in the autumn of 1994 he drew the short straw after inspectors confirmed the college was to be put under the tough improvement regime euphemistically known as "special measures". With the then-principal away on sick leave, it fell to the deputy to stand in front of anxious fellow staff and announce the judgement that would shape the college's existence for the next two- and-a-half years - and beyond.

The failing tag was more than the college had bargained for, says Mr Seddon, who admits to having broken down in private after hearing the verdict. "I knew we were not going to get accolades but I didn't think it would be so drastic."

Almost three years on, and with the benefit of hindsight, he acknowledges that Tamarside, now out of special measures for three months, was "coasting". The 1,270-pupil comprehensive had been created in 1989 from the merger of three secondary moderns, and reorganisation had been followed by inertia, compounded by leadership shortcomings. Within the first day of the week- long inspection, the Ofsted team had sniffed out managerial weaknesses, and - staff soon realised - had planned a carefully co-ordinated series of questions to confirm their suspicions.

Despite their devastation at the failing label, college staff had to keep their emotions hidden until a public announcement was made to pupils and parents, just a day before the Christmas break. Then began the first of a long series of negative reports in the local press which, according to the new principal Rod Owen, has proved one of the bitterest side effects of the Ofsted process.

As with all schools placed under special measures, initial shock had to be rapidly replaced with practical action. Under the guidance of an acting head, senior staff drew up an action plan to tackle serious weaknesses in teaching standards, pupil achievement, discipline and management. Ofsted gave the nod of approval, and the long haul to recovery began, monitored at every stage by Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMIs).

"You have to be in a place to understand the impact that has on an institution," says Mr Owen, who arrived from a successful East Riding rural comprehensive in January 1996 with a mission to rescue a college he felt had been "blamed and shamed".

"You are constantly looking over your shoulder and aware of what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is a great intensity in knowing you are having what is effectively a mini Ofsted every term."

Both principal and deputy agree that, with sympathetic and well-targeted support from the HMIs and from Devon local education authority, the college has seen dramatic improvements for the better. Some teachers were offered early retirement, and others were given extra training to improve lesson standards.

Tamarside is a better institution as a consequence of its Ofsted experience, its principal says. "Whether we could have got into this position via a more gentle approach I am not sure. There were some fairly fundamental things to be changed here, and though it was a heavy-handed thing to do it has worked for Tamarside. I don't know whether it would do the same for more fragile institutions than we were."

But he calls for more sharing of the experiences of recovering failing schools among those in similar straits - something the college missed out on. As it struggled to improve, there were too few opportunities to learn from others which had done better.

Tamarside is now trying to plug that gap by passing on its newly forged good practice to other Devon schools, and the head has written to the Government's improving schools supremo, Michael Barber, to offer to do the same nationallyn

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