Now is the season for teachers to gather at their Easter conferences hurling insults at the usual Aunt Sallys, chief among them Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, and his army of 10,000 inspectors - of which I am one. The tirade began last week at the annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers when the suicide of one of its members, after a lifetime of teaching, was blamed on the stress caused by inspections. This sad event was used to undermine the whole system of school inspection which is undoubtedly helping to raise standards.
The ATL debate was clouded, as it so often is, by the personality of Woodhead, who was accused of being gratuitously offensive and insensitive. He refused to write a letter of condolence to the teacher's family, although he did later express his regrets during a radio interview. It is the case that there is a vast difference between the Ofsted personified by Woodhead, and the men and women, most of us experienced and talented educational professionals, who actually carry out the work.
Ofsted-baiting will continue over the next week when opportunities will be sought to damage the inspection service at the annual conferences of the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. It would be a foolish school inspector who argued that inspections of schools always went smoothly and without stress. It would be an equally foolish teacher, local education authority or teacher union that argued that inspections were the root cause of stress and did more harm than good.
Of course inspections cause stress. Of course mistakes are sometimes made. But it is a question of balance. And that balance must never tilt back to a public acceptance that inspections should be scrapped, that schools should be allowed to go back to the bad old days of being unaccountable. I remember times when there was literally a red line drawn across some playgrounds proclaiming, No Parents Past This Line.
The one thing that makes me angry when visiting a school - although of course it must never show - is when teachers or governors talk of "sides", as in the school and the inspectors taking opposing views. We are, or at least should be, on the same side - the children's. And from the inspector's point of view, this sometimes means pointing out some unpalatable truths usually concerned with the quality of teaching, which has a direct impact on the standards being achieved by the pupils, their behaviour and their attitudes to their work. Are people really saying that the effects of poor teaching should take second place to protecting the feelings of teachers - who, if they are under-performing, will be letting their pupils down?
When inspections began in September 1992, things did go wrong. Reports were full of jargon and impenetrable to the lay reader; some judgements were not backed by secure evidence; and schools that should have been labelled as failing their pupils escaped because of the inexperience of inspectors who were not prepared to grasp the nettle. The price is being paid by those schools now which, having "escaped" the first time, are being judged as failing or having serious weaknesses.
Some inspectors were guilty of bullying tactics, but it is becoming increasingly hard for them to hide. Since 1992, 577 registered inspectors have lost their right to lead school inspections. The imperative in the beginning was to inspect the 4,000 secondary and 19,000 primary schools in England. Insufficient thought was given to the quality of the inspection or the inspectors.
Now the arrangements for inspections have been changed. There is less pressure on schools and more pressure on inspectors to get it right. Good schools are given light-touch inspections, typically involving five inspectors for three days in a 500-pupil secondary school. A full inspection of the same school would involve 10 or 12 inspectors working between three and five days each. The other important shift of emphasis is on monitoring the quality of inspectors and inspections. This term, about a third of the 1,100 inspections have either been visited, or the reports read, by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools. Brief written appraisals are sent to inspectors, identifying any areas of their work requiring improvement.
Schools, quite rightly, are becoming much more aware of their rights within the system. The hue and cry from the vested interests are in danger of damaging what in most cases is a positive experience for schools. One colleague came home from an inspection to find a basket of flowers from a school - and no, it was not a wreath. There is nothing inspectors like more than finding a school they would send their own children to, where the good lessons make them cry; there is nothing we like less than reporting on the 10 per cent or so of schools that are failing their pupils.
It is not in anybody's interests for poor-quality inspectors to stalk our schools. Equally, it is not in anybody's interest - least of all the nation's children - for poor teachers to continue in the classroom.
Robert Frederick - not his real name - is an Ofsted Registered Inspector.Reuse content