Learning from inspection

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Raising standards in our schools is an aim that all those concerned with education surely share. Certainly it is one issue on which there is political consensus. The regular inspection of all schools in England is an essential part of that improvement process.

But inspection is a stressful business - for the inspectors as well as for staff and pupils in the school. It would be astonishing if, after about 3,000 inspections, nothing had gone wrong and nobody had complained. Yesterday, members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers cricitised the work of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). Among other things, they said that the threat of inspection was causing fear among teachers and that inspections were not uniform.

Good teachers have nothing to fear from inspection. Inspection is primarily concerned with assessing the development of the children in the school - not just their academic development but also spiritual, moral, social and cultural.

After five terms of the new inspection arrangements, regulated by Ofsted, more than 40 schools have been found to be failing to provide their pupils with an acceptable standard of education. Each child has only one chance of education at school. If that chance is squandered because of failings in the school, everybody loses.

Quality cannot be squeezed into an organisation from the outside. Improvement must come from within. Internal audit is an important part of achieving that evaluation, but every school can benefit from an independent and expert outside view. That is what inspection brings. Through the published reports it also brings public accountability and - vitally important - a clear picture for parents of their children's education.

Our framework for inspections ensures that there is consistency in the scope and format of inspection. But inspectors are human beings, so there will always be variations in approach and style.

In the first year of inspecting nearly 900 secondary schools, we received only 34 formal complaints and in the first term of primary inspections there were only 30. We take all complaints seriously. But we do not sit back and wait for criticism. Ofsted puts a lot of resources into monitoring the performance of registered inspectors, both by visiting inspections and by checking the quality of the final report.

We also visited hundreds of schools following inspection to talk to heads, teachers, governors, pupils and parents about their experiences during the inspection. In the constant effort to raise our standards, we have just completed a national consultation - including all the teacher unions - to try to make the inspection framework more manageable, especially for primary schools.

Inspection may be uncomfortable, but it is an essential part of the educational reforms that are raising standards in schools, and it is meeting the needs of parents who want to be involved in their children's education.

The writer is Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools.