Serving as an Ofsted Lay School Inspector
How it came about
In 1993 I responded to an advertisement for people to train as Lay inspectors, as part of the new Ofsted school inspection regime in the UK. The Lay inspector was to represent the views of an ordinary member of the public not directly involved with education. Several months later, which seems to be the way with government departments, I was invited to attend a one week course to learn how it was done. The problem was that nobody knew how it was done because it hadn't been done before. Nevertheless, in five days we were taught the relevant law, the process and the basics of how school inspections were to be conducted. We also spent a day in teams of four visiting various local primary schools to try out our new skills on a mock inspection. At the end of this very intensive week we had to pass a written and oral exam to gain our accreditation.
All sorts of people attended the course: managers, housewives, a personnel manager from a famous chain store, the deputy governor of a prison and many retired or self-employed people. Most were educated professionals in their forties or fifties, with a few more men than women. The common denominator seemed to be a genuine interest in helping to improve state education. Although only one person on my course failed, many decided it was too much like hard work and decided not to register.
Ofsted initially trained almost a thousand Lay inspectors, but it was up to each individual to find an organisation or independent Registered Inspector willing to have them on their inspection team. I wrote to twenty local education authorities, the most likely organisations to bid for school inspections in the early days. Sixteen were discourteous enough not even to reply, but two interviews yielded one opportunity. The Northamptonshire Inspection and Advisory Service (NIAS) invited me to join a pilot inspection in March 1994, and my foot was finally on the first rung of the ladder.
The Inspection Process
The appointed Registered Inspector (RgI, usually referred to as 'the Reggie') leads the inspection and takes personal responsibility for its findings. He or she informs you of your specific responsibilities, and invites you to a pre-inspection meeting to meet your team colleagues and plan the inspection. There you collect a great deal of paper describing the school's organisation, achievements, policies and procedures, from which you prepare a list of key issues for inspection relevant to your responsibilities. Lay inspectors rarely have prime responsibility for individual academic subjects, although they may assist with subjects where they have particular experience, like I have done with maths and IT.
Inspections begin on a Monday, and last from three to five days. The Lay inspector's contribution is usually two or three days, but can be all week in a large secondary school. On Monday the team meets the staff and begins observing and assessing lessons. On my first inspection I think I was more apprehensive than the teachers, but the process is so prescriptive that you just follow the rules and use your common sense. Monday evening we examine a sample of pupils' work, which frequently stretches the first day to over twelve hours. Tuesday the team concentrates on the emerging key issues, and the real work starts in earnest. By Wednesday evening most of the judgements have become clear, and the remainder of the inspection is taken up with completing the detail. On the last evening, usually Thursday, the team meets to agree the main findings and key issues for action, and these are fed back to the Head.
A few days later the post-inspection meeting is held to discuss the inspection evidence and the preparation of the report. Then we all retire to a quiet place to complete a comprehensive record of inspection evidence and to draft our report paragraphs. These are submitted to the Reggie, who edits them into a cohesive report ready for a quality audit by an experienced reader. Finally, if I have any energy left, I send in my invoice.
My Loves and Hates
I love being in school. The kids, especially the little ones, never cease to surprise me with their open minds and searching questions. I have a fund of funny stories that my friends always believe I make up, but they keep coming. Teaching nowadays is very hard work, and usually quite different from the memories of our own school days. Watching a really good lesson is an amazing experience, leaving you feeling that tingle normally associated with a special piece of music or a fine painting.
I hate the over prescriptive framework of inspection. I hate the assumption that I cannot be trusted unchaperoned with a child, even though I accept the necessity for it. I regret the stress it puts on teachers. But above all, I hate the unnecessary paperwork. For reasons I do not fully understand, there seems to be a pathological unwillingness to dispense with paper. Sadly my suggestions fall on deaf ears, often provoking a pointed reference to my 'vested interest in IT'. Maybe in the next millennium ...
School inspections are very hard work, but with the right team they are very enjoyable and fulfilling. I have learned a great deal about contemporary education in schools, and feel privileged to have had the opportunity to contribute something. I have met almost a hundred school inspectors and they have all been hard working professionals, often with a great sense of humour. But if you are expecting to get rich as a Lay Inspector - forget it!
For more information try the Ofsted web site.
A few years after I withdrew from the register of lay inspectors in 2002 the inspection process was radically reviewed and the role of lay inspector was abolished. Once more school inspections became the sole prerogative of professional educationalists, those who have spent their entire lives in school, with all the introspection that implies. Sadly, ordinary members of the public can no longer bring a breath of fresh air into the assessment of schools, and the process has been returned entirely to those with a vested interest in the status quo. Plus ça change!