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Wednesday, August 5, 1998 Published at 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK

Image consciousness

By Geoff Lowe - formerly headteacher of an 11-18 comprehensive school, currently researching the effect of Ofsted inspections on school development. He is also a part-time tutor of postgraduate trainee teachers at the Open University.

When visiting schools these days one is met by a sign welcoming callers and even a snappy advertising slogan such as "this school is in hot pursuit of excellence".

Gone are the days when the only sign outside a school was a dull wooden object which was covered with a torn poster announcing that the school is a polling station in the local council elections. The header proclaimed that this was the domain of the borough council and the chairman of education committee, Sir Jack Hardcore, OBE. Nowadays notions of customer awareness have replaced municipal dominion.

Invariably visitors have to sign in then sit among the confused, sick, angry and badly behaved. The badly behaved and angry are quickly scooped up by the school's management team, bent on maintaining the good public image - viz. a popular school with high-attaining, well-behaved pupils backed by satisfied parents.

The reception area - once a "no go" area for the pupils - is filled with "age weighted pupil units" wending their way slowly to lessons. The walls are covered with posters, press cuttings and photographs about school activities which promote its public image: school exchanges (our pupils have a high degree of European awareness); the Y11 farewell party (we all survived in spite of the aggro); the bishop's visit (to be used as inspection evidence of a commitment to promoting spiritual awareness); "Young Engineers" (invariably girls); boys' football teams with trophies (don't worry we are not that politically correct); the sixth form geography field trip to Arran (our advanced geographers can read real maps); and business people presenting equipment which would have been thrown in the skip if it were not for the actions of an enthusiastic member of the parent teacher association.

Image sensitivity

The more business-minded schools proudly display plaques celebrating their membership of "Investors in People" and BS 5650 certification. This informs the unwary visitor and wandering Ofsted inspector that the school's management is free of the evil influence of the university schools of education.

Assuming he meets with the approval of the headteacher's secretary, the "guardian angel" of the inner sanctum whose efforts to protect the headteacher from the attentions of university researchers is matched only by her determination not to be involved in the routine work of the school's office, the visiting researcher is conducted into the head's office. Now the real work begins.

One can understand why schools are so sensitive about projecting a good image. They have to reap the consequences of a sensationalist and parochially-minded local press.

I visit a school which received a superb Ofsted inspection report. The main finding reads: "This is a very popular, truly comprehensive school where pupils attain high standards and a high degree of racial harmony is a strength". There was more in this vein.

It was significant in the annals of Ofsted inspection because inspectors are renowned for their frequent use of the anodyne phrase. Words such as "sound", "average" and "satisfactory" ring out from inspection reports like cracked church bells. The local press, which had spotted a paragraph about the school's battles over its cleaning contract, greeted the report with the headlines: " Inspectors condemn dirty school." Tucked away in the piece was the inspectors' judgement that this was an outstanding establishment.

Inspecting the inspectors

The mention of Chris Woodhead and Ofsted sends one of my colleagues into fits of apoplexy. She cannot imagine anything good coming out of Ofsted and she is not alone in this view. She considers my interest in Ofsted inspection to be an aberration.

I got into research into this area when my own experience of school inspection did not match the conflicting claims made by Ofsted and its critics. Given that Ofsted inspection is one of central government's main means of raising standards I was surprised to find that Ofsted's claims for inspection had not been subjected to systematic investigation and very little was known about how inspection works to affect school development.

The link between the means and ends in the case of inspection and school improvement is yet to be established. It would be wrong for me to anticipate the outcome of my research but two years into the study there does not seem to be much evidence that school inspection in itself achieves lasting change in the classroom or raises levels of attainment in the schools in the study.

However, it may serve other ends: appearing to make schools publicly accountable; bringing the basis for school evaluation into the public domain; ensuring the implementation of the national curriculum; and blowing away a few cobwebs in coasting schools. Certainly it is good news for companies selling carpets, display units, litter bins, phones and paint.

Focus on practicalities

I have just completed assessing some PGCE assignments. Assessments are made against a set of criteria for teaching competency. It is no bad thing when we all know which skills, qualities and aspects of subject knowledge are required for teaching in today's schools. Teacher training is being gradually moved away from schools of education into schools proper and is now more focused on the practicalities instead of the theory.

If my PGCE group is anything to go by some lucky schools will be appointing some highly skilled, knowledgeable and dedicated specialist technicians. However, I have begun to harbour the suspicion that the new system is not turning the participants into educators who think for themselves.

In my experience the most creative and popular teachers were those who were prepared to take risks in their teaching, question assumptions, challenge the status quo and feed the minds of their pupils. In this age of school examination league tables the schools may be reluctant to take on teachers who take risks and who, heaven forbid, don't fit into the managerialist culture which influences headteachers' views about teaching and leaning.

It takes all sorts to make an education system. This is our space for those involved to sit back and reflect on how it is going from their corner of the world.

The views expressed here are personal.

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