Could pupils do a better job than Ofsted?

24 Jan 2009 The Guardian

Power to the pupils - an alternative Ofsted

Who is really best placed to decide what works in the classroom, asks Mike Baker

The proposed Ofsted "crackdown" on boring teaching has attracted plenty of comment. But who is best placed to decide what works in the classroom? Is it Ofsted inspectors, the senior management team or the pupils? An experiment at Caversham primary school in Berkshire could offer some surprising answers to this conundrum. Left feeling dissatisfied by its last Ofsted, the school commissioned its own pupils to conduct an inspection.

Although Ofsted's overall verdict was very favourable, Caversham's headteacher, Chris Tomkins, was nevertheless stung by the inspectors' comments that pupils were not fully involved in assessing their own progress and lacked understanding of how they were doing. So she thought she would "turn the inspection on its head" and let the pupils judge the school.

This was no gimmick. The pupil inspectors were trained and conducted 102 classroom observations, then were left to write up their report. Inspectors were democratically elected class representatives from years 3 to 6. The results were interesting and, sometimes, surprising. The overall verdict was more positive than Ofsted but there were some acute and challenging comments. According to Tomkins, the findings were "frighteningly accurate". Some things surprised her. For example, she had thought behaviour was better than they reported.

Indeed, the pupils were tough on behaviour. They found 16% of lessons where behaviour was no better than "satisfactory". They observed "one or two lessons where a lot of the children fidget, talk to each other about irrelevant things and fiddle with equipment". They also noted that during teachers' preparation, planning and assessment (PPA) time "some of the children in the higher age groups behaved worse than in the younger years". They also noted that in the summer term "some older children do not work as hard because Sats are over".

However, apart from the comment about PPA time, the pupil inspectors did not blame poor behaviour on boring teaching. Overall, they graded the quality of learning as "outstanding" but noted room for improvement among those teachers who failed to distribute opportunities to answer questions equally across the whole class. They also commented that "some teachers have a weak subject" but added, comfortingly, "just as anyone does".

Nor did the pupil inspectors pull their punches in other areas. Some accommodation was judged to be "cramped", and they would like to have seen lockers in classrooms and more water fountains. They were also censorious about the need for some children to "cut down on crisps" in their packed lunches.

So the big question was this: which inspection was the greatest help in improving the school?

Tomkins felt the pupils' report was the more accurate. The Ofsted and the children's reports were published almost two years apart, so exact comparison is difficult. But the children's verdict matched exactly that of Caversham's school improvement partner.

The school has responded to the children's report. "It made us have another look at assessment for learning," says Tomkins, "as the pupils thought there was still an issue about targets." The management team is also considering the pupils' view that they would like lessons to be more child-led.

So, should children's inspections replace Ofsted? I suspect Tomkins just about held back from saying "yes", but she questions the value of regular inspections of schools with good previous reports and no change of headteacher. As a school improvement tool the children's inspection certainly seems to work.

It's also good that someone is inspecting the inspectors. Where there is serious variance between the pupils and Ofsted, the professionals should be required to justify themselves. Caversham primary is due another Ofsted soon; its pupils will be watching.

Post a comment

After posting your comment you will need to confirm it by checking your email and clicking the confirmation that will be sent to you.

Comments will appear once reviewed for appropriate content.