Teachers should stop being neurotic about school inspections and face up to their weaknesses with honesty, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools said yesterday.
In a robust defence of the inspection system, Mr Chris Woodhead attacked a "professional culture" which was unwilling to admit that standards in many schools were too low.
In his second annual lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in London, Mr Woodhead refuted widespread criticism that his Office for Standards in Education is too punitive and demoralises teachers. Last year, he attacked trendy teaching methods.
He said it was not the fault of inspectors that a headteacher did not cook a meal for her family for a year because she was terrified about an inspection. Teacher unions, academics, local authorities and journalists were to blame for promoting a state of neurosis in which the announcement of an inspection caused "a massive hike in the figures for early retirement and nervous breakdown".
A mythology was growing up around inspections, with professors of education describing them as "mental cruelty" and teachers as "marginalised victims". "It is dangerous in the extreme to play to the lowest common denominator of professional anxiety," Mr Woodhead added.
He wanted a professional culture "which is honest enough to face up to its weaknesses and failures, to do something about the unacceptable variations between the achievements of one school and another, to translate the rhetoric of school improvement into real management and classroom action".
Mr Woodhead accepted that the new four-yearly inspections introduced by the Government were stressful and that conscientious teachers worried most. But he said: "I think that the prospect of an external visit concentrates minds, which might, shall we say, not otherwise have been concentrated."
He defended his office against the charge that it had become a political poodle by, for example, publishing a report that said class size did not affect standards. Such charges came from critics who could not accept that his office had been set up to benefit the consumer. "I make no apology for taking the consumer's part when it comes to confronting poor teaching," Mr Woodhead added.
Critics say "hit and run" inspections are not the best way to improve schools and that self-evaluation should play a bigger part, but Mr Woodhead said schools were not up to the job of identifying their own weaknesses and putting them right. "Inspection evidence does not show us many schools that are as yet identifying and facing up to real weaknesses in a rigorous and honest way."
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said: "Teachers are not neurotic. They are concerned to do the best for their pupils and they are aware that their children and their work are on show. If problems are identified, what they need is help to overcome them not the simple snapshots of criticism provided by inspections."
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