An inspector calls and finds Blunkett in flagrante

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The Independent Online
Funny things happen when you're a schools inspector. Recently a distraught headteacher phoned his local authority inspector for advice after one of the cleaners found his deputy in flagrante delicto with a newly qualified teacher. The inspector promised to be there in the morning. When she arrived, she was surprised to find the head relaxed and happy. "It's all right," he said. "It's sorted. It won't happen again, I promise."

"What did you do?" the inspector asked.

"I changed the cleaner's hours," came the reply.

There are many ways to tackle a problem, not all of them equally appropriate. The general observer could be forgiven for wondering what on earth is going on in education. Last week Mr Blair faced an audience of teachers, parents and governors on Newsnight, brimming with bonhomie, and answered (or evaded) their questions with reassuring ease. Meanwhile, his Secretary of State inveighs against the ivory-tower academics of Durham University, who dispute his view that homework is good for primary-age pupils, and his Chief Inspector of Schools attacks "liberal elitism" with similar vigour.

Who are they trying to impress? And which constituencies do they seek to serve? If it does not care what teachers think or feel, the Government is making a dangerous mistake. It will find that most parents support teachers anyway, and admire their dedication, both at primary and secondary level.

The sport of teacher-bashing began in the Seventies with Keith Joseph, the first of Margaret Thatcher's secretaries of state, and flourished under a long succession of Tory ministers (with the possible exception of John MacGregor), eagerly supported by the right-wing tabloids. Surely Mr Blunkett is not simply continuing that tradition?

Mr Woodhead has implied that teachers are deeply hostile to Ofsted inspections; in fact their attitude is pragmatic, particularly after the second time round. They have begun to appreciate the benefits of receiving positive feedback where that is appropriate and, where it isn't, of being told where improvements can be made. What matters is how things are done. Any teacher will testify that the anxiety of the build-up is far worse than the inspection itself. Many would prefer it if Ofsted just turned up unannounced.

The bigger question is whether or not the spending of pounds 70m of public money from 1993 to 1997 was justified by the results. Didn't we know already that 90 per cent of schools and more were doing at least a satisfactory job? The former HMI certainly did, and it knew which ones were cause for concern. Moreover, the diversion of funds from LEAs deprived schools of the valuable support of local authority inspectors who were either laid off to save the authorities money or hired out to Ofsted to recoup it.

Meanwhile, the new regime for managing local education budgets - spectacularly misnamed Fair Funding - is beginning to decimate those very advisory services teachers prize. No less than schools, the vast majority of LEAs are doing at least an adequate job. It is disingenuous of Mr Blair to say that "many local authorities" are failing. Out of 150 in England, only a handful could be so described.

Another argument advanced for a national system of inspection is the need to build a database on the performance of schools and LEAs across the country. Too often, however, statistics are misused to support a particular line. Most frequently cited is the "fact" that 15,000 teachers are not up to scratch. On Newsnight this number was cut to 12,000, but the truth is that whatever the figure is, it refers to unsatisfactory lessons, not staff - which is quite a different matter.

During her time as Secretary of State, Gillian Shephard proclaimed that class size does not matter: Ofsted figures proved it! In fact, all they showed was that sensible secondary schools put their brighter and more biddable pupils into bigger sets and their less able, less motivated ones into smaller ones. From this, the Chief Inspector would have us believe that large classes are no bar to high attainment, and small ones no guarantee of it. What does he take us for?

This is arguably the most dirigiste education department since the war, notwithstanding the monumental changes introduced by Kenneth Baker's 1988 Education Reform Act (which many teachers saw as revenge for their industrial action the previous year). An abiding memory of the recent training for the national literacy strategy is the Prime Minister's face, projected onto a giant screen in Big Brother style, exhorting teachers and governors to embrace the principle of "something for something". An older head told me it reminded her very much of the induction she had received in the Sixties. "There were children then who had difficulties reading," she mused. "I suspect there always will be." Meanwhile David Blunkett has staked his future on raising literacy levels by 2002.

"Something for something" underlies the Government's insistence on linking the appraisal of teachers to performance-related pay. This is being introduced despite the overwhelming opposition expressed during the consultation exercise, despite a boycott by one of the major unions, despite the growing disenchantment of the business world with this form of payment by results - and despite the fact that the idea of appraisal was sold to teachers originally by Ken Clarke as a way to help them progress in their profession.

Teachers know the system of appraisal needs reform - its edge needs sharpening to provide for "smarter" targets. Indeed, schools were already making changes. Insisting on a link to pay is setting a collision course with the profession, which could end in serious trouble before the year is out. There are several ways to put money into the system and make sure good practice is rewarded. This is not one of them.

Derek Hewett has worked as a general inspector in an outer London borough for the past 10 years, and has been involved in more than 50 school inspections. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect official policy.