We should inspect our obsession with failure

Ofsted does not need to keep examining teacher training
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The Independent Online
Last week Ofsted announced plans to inspect primary teacher training courses. It stressed that these inspections would focus on "the students' ability to teach reading and number work." Since these skills lie at the heart of primary teaching this seems perfectly reasonable. The only surprise is that Ofsted is just completing an inspection programme that has focused precisely on the quality of training, and on the students' competence in English and mathematics.

The inspection of the primary PGCE course at the Institute of Education of the University of London was completed on 21 June. It was extremely rigorous. In October, five experienced inspectors spent four days listening to lectures, observing workshops, interviewing staff and students, and visiting the head teachers of some of our partner schools. They also collected and studied all the paperwork connected with the course including student assignments. The inspection team returned in June and spent three days in our partner schools talking to our students and observing them teaching reading and number work. Inspectors also interviewed the teacher-tutors and spoke with the heads in order to gauge the effectiveness of the training. At the feedback session our institute primary tutors were told that the course had been awarded the four highest grades.

Congratulations should have been in order - for the students about to become much-needed high-quality teachers, for the heads and teachers of our excellent partner schools and for our own hardworking staff. Last week's press conference killed all that: Ofsted is planning to reinspect not just those universities and colleges where courses were found to be poor, or those where there were doubts about the quality of provision, but even some who achieved the highest grades.

The motivation for this extraordinary decision can only be guessed. The Daily Telegraph, believing as it does that initial teacher training can be characterised by "pernicious pedagogic theories being peddled in the lecture halls" (12 July) sees it as a courageous act, dealing blows to both teacher trainers and the Ofsted inspection team. The Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, on the other hand, is more suspicious. It asks whether courses are to be "inspected and reinspected, judged and rejudged, graded and regraded until enough are considered to have failed to suit the unfavourable perception of teacher training courses that is currently being urged upon the public."

Whatever the motivation, the intention to reinspect courses that have been praised by practising heads and teachers and shown by inspectors to be excellent must be queried on grounds of public expense (according to its 1995 corporate plan the costs of Ofsted will very nearly have tripled in its five-year existence - they are estimated at pounds 122m for 1997/98). But reinspection should also be queried on educational grounds. Inspections (even if they result in the highest grades) provide helpful feedback. The experienced outsider can always identify potential improvements and knowledge of good practice elsewhere frequently suggests alternative strategies. Our partnership schools and our course tutors need time to incorporate these suggestions into their provision; instant reinspection - digging up the plant again to see how well its roots are developing - is not a good idea.

This is the first public criticism that I have made of Ofsted although (as someone proud to have been appointed an HMI in 1978) I have watched its changes with interest. Having been involved with school effectiveness research for more than 20 years and having advised the Government on school improvement projects, I have been impressed with many of Ofsted's innovations. I believe that its special measures work with schools in difficulties, for example, has been exemplary.

I am concerned, however, that Ofsted is now losing its way. It would be a great pity to see its potentially beneficial impact on our education system sacrificed. The reinspection debacle represents an increasing obsession with failure. Of course some things have been wrong in the past. Certainly everybody involved in the education system needs to improve - as Michael Fullan reminds us: you don't have to be ill to get better! And yes, we educationalists probably have been too inward-looking and self-referential. Ofsted is right to remind us of these failings and to use its influence to challenge and improve. But this is only half of the story.

The English education system should also be proud of its successes: schools using local management opportunities to pursue national targets of achievement; a National Curriculum offering an entitlement to all pupils; a radically different approach to assessment and feedback; further education colleges that are combining academic and vocational courses; a higher education expansion that is probably unparalleled; and initial teacher training based on a sound partnership with practitioners.

Ofsted needs to celebrate these successes with as genuine a zeal as it reserves for failure. It must resist blinding itself to positive results. After all, the literature of social psychology shows that in all walks of life rewards have greater efficacy than punishments.

Professor Peter Mortimore is the director of the Institute of Education of the University of London.