Inspectors' lives after Woodhead

November 10, 2000

Does anyone know exactly what the assessors are doing? Geoffrey Squires thinks it is about time we asked them.

When someone comes to write the history of British education in the late 20th century, he or she will need to devote a chapter to the remarkable growth in the latter two decades of regimes for assessing and inspecting teaching.

The work of Ofsted, the Further Education Funding Council and the Quality Assurance Agency covers every sector of education and has a powerful influence on institutions and those who work in them. All this has been accompanied by ritual grumbling, particularly about comments by Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, from those on the receiving end. But it is time we took a harder look at these regimes and asked them what they ask us: how good are they?

The problem is not primarily organisational. Although such regimes are expensive, they are on the whole tightly administered and well run. Nor is the problem professional: those who visit institutions, by and large, do so competently and carefully. The problem is a more fundamental, theoretical one that calls into question the object of the whole exercise: the apparent failure to think through what teaching is.

To do this, we need to address three basic questions. What do teachers do? What affects what they do? And how do they do it? Similar questions can be asked of any profession. The first is a question about functions. What are teachers for? What do they do for their pupils or students that the latter cannot do without them?

If all the teachers and lecturers in the country were suddenly transported to a desert island, in what ways would we miss them?

The second question is about context. The answer to many questions about teaching is: it depends. It depends on what one is teaching, at what level, to whom, in what sort of department or institution and in what kind of society. Above all, it depends on what one is trying to achieve. Teaching involves taking account of all these factors and adapting or fine-tuning what one does in the light of them.

The third question (how do they do it?) is about the means of teaching: all the approaches, styles, procedures, methods, techniques, materials and technologies that teachers use. These enable the teacher to translate his or her functions into practice. The relationship between functions and means is complex and not simply one-to-one. If we ask how a teacher motivates or gives feedback to his or her pupils or students, the answer is: in various ways. And those ways change as the means of teaching change.

Any view of teaching, and, in particular, any assessment of teaching, has to involve all three questions, but it is the first that really goes to the heart of the matter. It is important to see how well teachers deal with situational factors and how skilfully they use the means and methods at their disposal. But the point of both of these goes back to the essential functions of the teacher: to do those things for learners that they would find difficult or impossible to do on their own.

In short, the assessment or inspection of teaching should be concerned primarily with what teachers do, and only secondarily with the means they use.

This is what is wrong with the current regimes. They focus primarily on the means and tools of teaching, and only secondarily, if at all, on the underlying functions. They catalogue resources, dissect procedures, observe methods and rate techniques.

But we best evaluate teaching by asking about learning. Instead of checking admissions processes, we should ask whether students think they are on the right course.

Instead of looking at course design, we should discover whether students find the course manageable. Instead of ticking off lists of aims and objectives, we should ascertain whether students know where they are going. Instead of applying fixed criteria as to what counts as a good lecture, small group session or workshop, we should focus on what the teacher is using these methods for, and how the pupils or students experience them.

Oddly, for all the talk about the shift from teaching to learning, the main preoccupation is with teaching input, not its impact.

Assessments are not insensitive to what affects teaching. The idea of "fitness for purpose" and the ubiquitous use of the "appropriate" signal are a genuine attempt to place teaching in context. Nor are the approaches merely procedural, insofar as they attempt to get at pupils and students' attitudes to and engagement in the process, and to get a feel for the general learning environment.

But the basic failure to distinguish between what teachers do and how they do it has serious consequences at two levels.

It leads to an overly technical view of teaching that puts the emphasis on organisational tidiness and pedagogical explicitness. This is useful in picking up examples of sloppy administration or classroom work. But the extensive paper trails that this generates are not, as is sometimes thought, some accidental outgrowth of the system that could be pruned; they stem from its underlying emphasis.

At a deeper level, the pervasive sense that the whole exercise is somewhat artificial must partly undermine its credibility, which is a pity because it has, in fact, brought a new rigour to some aspects of the work.

The current regimes have made little attempt to explain the conceptual or theoretical basis for what they do. It may be that they do not address the question of what teaching is because they think everyone knows. References to "good practice" imply that it is obvious what is good. Or they may not ask the question because they think it is unanswerable, a view that shows little awareness of the research on the subject that has been going on, not only in this country but, for example, in Australia. Or perhaps we are seeing a triumph of that ambiguous English virtue, common sense.

Whatever the reason, the tacit basis of the process makes it difficult to evaluate. There is surely an onus on anyone who sets up an official system of inspection to make clear the assumptions on which it is based, so that we can judge how sound they are.

The arguments over whether teaching should be assessed have largely been carried on the broader grounds of public accountability. Whatever one thinks about Woodhead's resignation, the irony is that he ended up getting his own way: he, not standards, became the issue. The debate has shifted to the issue of who should assess teaching and what mixture of self-assessment and external inspection will work best. But, unless we sort out the basics, all this is of little account. Any system of inspection has to flow from some conception of teaching, some notion of what it means to teach. Few would argue for dismantling the whole apparatus. The real question is: are we assessing the right things?

Geoffrey Squires is reader in education at the University of Hull and author of Teaching as a Professional Discipline (Falmer, 1999).

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