IN the debate which has begun over the future of school inspections since Chris Woodhead's resignation, it is important to be practical. Much is at stake for the education service.
As schools' accountability to parents, communities and the electorate is likely to grow, the Office for Standards in Education should continue to take a robust approach, however unpopular that may prove.
A movement towards shorter inspections is under way but the full inspection process will need to be maintained wherever insufficient local progress is apparent.
Public support for external evaluation systems is well-documented and consequently it is the associated culture, rather than the machinery itself, which is likely to change. Nonetheless this is a key aspect of future school improvement activity and needs careful consideration.
Formal inspections may well have to be more clearly linked to the developmental role of school improvement specialists, especially where schools are in difficulty, and to school managers' self-evaluation and self-improvement efforts.
It is the balance between these different components of an overall school improvement strategy which should be realistically defined at national level.
A more "joined-up" approach is needed which combines external evaluation with local self-evaluation of performance.
An early-warning system, for good schools encountering practical problems which can directly affect performance, makes as much sense now as when the 1997 White Paper Excellence in Schools first highlighted this point. Schools are always changing and deterioration in standards can occur swiftly.
Effective monitoring of all schools is therefore important and should not be reduced to overly "light-touch" forms. Performance data tracking is essential, but inevitably refers to developments which have already taken place. The link adviserinspector plays a key role in early detection of local difficulties, and needs enough contact to really know the current "health" of individual schools and trigger action when actually needed.
Where a school generates real concern, efective external intervention is required through a properly-structured process based on highly-trained school improvement officers.
That is why we should welcome the Government's new paper on introducing national professional standards to staff training and development for all school improvement services. School managers are entitled to quality-assured services.
However, further cultural change remains necessary in some areas to encourage acceptance of such external challenges and support for autonomous school managements in this period of change.
The debate should be extended to explore urgent, practical needs. How can we encourage more schools to become genuinely learning institutions, where managers and teachers team up to exchange and advance techniques? What type of school structure will that require? Who is in the best position to spot and transmit best local practice between schools? How can schools cover the curriculum in the broadest sense, embracing creative and thinking skills? We possess the great advantage that the clear majority of teaching staff, heads and school improvement specialists are powerfully motivated to deliver high-quality services.
Investment in developing their professional skills and expertise is the key to building on that significant motivation. Bodies like the new National College for School Leadership and the General Teaching Council for England are central to this task and have much work to do.
The National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants has established a research project to identify an up-to-date framework of competencies for advisers and inspectors, and has long supported similar quality initiatives elsewhere.
We seek fresh dialogue with the headteacher associations and all professionals who provide added value, to identify the areas of common support for national standards and for professional development programmes built on the hard, local experience of practitioners. Tomorrow's education service will benefit from a new combination of formal inspections and regular forms of developmental activity for staff, managers and schools.
John Chowchat is general secretary of the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants Letters, 19