Proposals for a differentiated inspection system

OFSTED has recently released a consultation paper setting out proposals for a 'differentiated inspection system'. The government has decided that it will introduce a 'lighter' inspection system and is inviting views on how rather than whether to introduce this.

The proposals are to the effect that some 20-30% of schools will be identified as 'best' on the basis of examination results and test scores and they will receive a short, less intensive, inspection; if they are found to have serious weaknesses they will have to have a full inspection soon after. The rest will continue to get a full inspection. The government appears unwilling to discuss any serious changes to the system as a whole which makes the present exercise somewhat marginal and possibly retrograde, in that it is likely to postpone any more fundamental changes. The following comments are therefore not directed at suggesting how to best implement such a system, but rather at the consequences likely to follow from its introduction.

To begin with, the consultation document repeats many of the misunderstandings and fallacies about the possibility of identifying 'best' schools in the first place. This is perhaps not surprising since it is written by HMCI Woodhead who has shown elsewhere that he is quite unaware of the relevant research in school effectiveness (see my commentary on his TES piece of 20/11/98 on this web site). The reality is that judgements based upon exam results and test scores, whether or not taken over time or using value added data, are imprecise. They also do not measure all those things that inspections are meant to assess (otherwise why have inspections at all?) and they are always out of date in the sense that, at best, they reflect the quality of education which was occurring over the whole period (up to five or six years in secondary schools) prior to the availability of the results. If this scheme goes ahead, therefore, some of the schools designated 'best' inevitably will be detected as having 'serious weaknesses' at their (short) inspection simply as a result of being wrongly classified. This is likely to be compounded by the increased unreliability of the short inspection, and this could be large given the unreliability of existing inspections.

A further issue is that the designation of a new set of 'best' schools on the basis of exam scores and test results will add further information to the existing 'league tables' and seems likely therefore to exacerbate the harmful consequences of those tables.

These proposals are misconceived and potentially harmful. If the government is really interested in having an open and intelligent debate it should reconsider its policy and widen the discussion to take in the nature of the resent inspection system and all the possibilities for reforming it.

Harvey Goldstein

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