In Defence of Principled Inspection

Part 2 discusses the vexed issue of the inspection of teaching and learning and how inspection can contribute to school improvement through establishing a professional dialogue. (Read part 1 here)

The heart of inspection are professional judgments about the quality of teaching and learning. Abandoning such judgments, as is being mooted by Ofsted, would deal a death-blow to professional inspection. Without it there would no point in inspecting a school.

Arriving at that judgment does not involve looking for particular teaching methods and then gauging their effectiveness in terms of promoting learning . Rather the reverse. Inspectors look for evidence of pupils’ learning in terms of their observable responses to teaching and then work back to those factors that have promoted, or hindered, their learning. There should be no automatically approved teaching methodology. “The unanticipated success of the wrong method” needs to be recognised and celebrated.

Judgments about the quality of teaching and learning in lessons and in the school as a whole are properly tentative and consequently have to be offered as such in any feedback to those who have been observed. There is inevitably a considerable degree of inference involved in the judgments, especially those relating to the extent to which learning has taken place ; there is inevitably too an element of professional judgment as to which features of the lesson have contributed to, or inhibited , whatever learning is inferred as having taken place. That tentativeness is crucial to the context in which any feedback is being given. It offers the opportunity in dialogue for other tentative, evidence-based, interpretations to be offered by the person being observed.

The evaluation of teaching and other aspects of the school is inevitably qualitative; nothing speaks for itself; everything needs interpreting and that interpretation inevitably involves value judgments and the use of qualitative descriptors such as “good”, “very good”, “excellent”, “satisfactory”, “reasonable”, “fair”” poor” etc. There can be no stipulation as to which qualitative terms are to be used; they must “fit” the perceptions of the activity or activities being evaluated. They cannot be reduced to just four numerical grades as under the current Ofsted regime; reality is much more complex than that four-fold categorisation. That over-simplification may be useful for the purposes of educational accounting but fails to take into account the many-varied facets of educational reality which can only be captured (and then only in part) in well-crafted prose.

Inspection teams need the freedom to dispense with artificial, misleading constructs such as overall inspection gradings and to present schools in their idiosyncratic variety with idiosyncratic descriptors to match.. Each inspection report has to be bespoke – not a formulaic account with minimal variation from school to school. Misleading over-simplistic grades should make way for prose which gives a vivid sense of what a particular school is really like –as seen by a group of experienced, expert observers. That’s the way schools are. That’s the way they should be reported That qualitative richness needs to be built into a re-evaluated inspection system.

No school, however notionally “outstanding”, is perfect. There is always more to learn from the experience of other schools and inspectors can help bring that experience to bear when making their recommendations. Inspections should result in recommendations, not as at present diktats as to “what the school needs to do to improve”. Inspectors should raise issues a school needs to consider, not necessarily to act on; that’s a crucial distinction. However, there is a professional obligation on the part of schools to respond publicly on how and why they have considered those recommendations, even if it is to reject them in part. Providing recommendations to consider, not slavishly and fearfully to act on, serves to respect rather than undermine the professional judgment of staff but also needs to be complemented by the need for a considered, public response to be given to a school’s stake-holders , be they parents, governors , local authority officials or schools commissioners.

There will no more timely an opportunity to re-instate the key principles of an educational approach to school inspection than next year in 2017 -the first year in post of a new chief inspector and of a new Ofsted chair. Both will need to foster a change in the teaching profession’s mind-set towards inspection so that it comes to be seen a developmental, educational enterprise, not a fault-finding, accounting process. Revisiting the principles of inspection pre-1992 could be a valuable way of renewing a two-way educational conversation with schools and teachers.

Colin Richards was HM Staff Inspector for the Curriculum and later Ofsted’s Specialist Adviser on Primary Education.

A more extended version of this two-part post can be obtained from

Let us know what you think in the comments below or via Twitter. ~ Meena

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