The Office for Standards in Education was set up in 1992. It has a wide remit to inspect just about anything connected to children and young people.
Its second Chief, Chris Woodhead, who took over in 1994, appeared to see it as his mission to aggravate as many teachers as he could. As a former ‘progressive’ teacher himself he seemed hell-bent on opposing those very same progressive methods he had once espoused. He became a divisive figure, on one famous occasion suggesting there were “fifteen thousand incompetent teachers”, a claim which seemed to be based on an extrapolation of the unsatisfactory lessons his inspectors had seen.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate has existed since the middle of the nineteenth century and HMI lead most of the inspections of secondary schools and a handful of other inspections. The rest of the inspection team members are usually ex-teachers, sometimes ex-heads but the occasional ‘lay’ inspector remains from the early days when this was thought a good idea.
Originally, inspections were notified months in advance and lasted a week with up to a dozen or more inspectors. After a while it was recognised that producing the dozens of boxes of documents required and anticipating the inspection for many weeks, put a great strain on schools and teachers and, of course, led to a decline in teaching standards after the event.
The pendulum has now swung in the other direction: up until September, schools would receive two days’ notice and a small team of inspectors (maybe just two or three, depending on the size of the school) would spend just two days in all at the school. From September 2012 inspections have been ‘no notice’, although the original plan (to just turn up without warning one morning) was seen to be impractical and schools now get a telephone call the previous afternoon.
Inspectors rely heavily on the wealth of data that is available for schools based on the performance of cohorts (year groups) in external examinations. This enables the Lead Inspector to form a preliminary judgement about the school from the PIB (Pre-Inspection Briefing). The inspection then sets about confirming or fine-tuning that judgement.
I have come across inspectors both during inspections and at other times. Most seem humane, sharp and genuinely interested in playing a part in the improvement of education. Of course, they can only operate within the rules given them and some do appear to have a personal agenda. Criticism of OFSTED has been made due to the way the framework changes with alarming rapidity and attempts by particularly the current Chief to ‘toughen up’, which means that comparing one school’s inspection outcome to another carried out at a different time is not comparing like with like. Another oft-heard criticism is that, despite the tightness of the rules, individual inspectors still manage to pursue their own agendas, meaning again that it is difficult to make fair comparisons between schools.
The current Chief Inspector is Sir Michael Wilshaw, a former head teacher, who in his outbursts criticising teachers, seems to have inherited Woodhead’s mantle as controversialist.