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Changes to school health checks

Chief inspector David Bell explains why he wants inspectors' visits to be more frequent but also shorter and sharper

Earlier this week, I launched a consultation paper outlining my proposals for the future of school inspection. Potentially, this represents the most fundamental review of inspection since the Office for Standards in Education was set up more than 10 years ago. I suspect therefore that what I have to say will interest everyone who reads The TES and beyond.

Even the most vociferous of Ofsted's opponents could not fail to acknowledge that we have seen a rise in standards and in the quality of schools in England during its first decade. There is little doubt that inspection has been a crucial component in this drive to raise standards.

But a great deal is changing, not least schools and colleges themselves.

It is right that Ofsted should evaluate its own work with the same rigour that we assess that of others to ensure that we continue to deliver the most effective and efficient service possible to all those with an interest in education. Ofsted should not merely respond to change. We must play our part in leading that change and ensure that it brings about further improvements in schools, colleges and childcare settings.

Under the proposals I announced earlier this week, Ofsted plans to introduce shorter, sharper, inspections to reduce the burden of inspection on schools and ensure that parents and the schools themselves continue to benefit from rigorous external inspection.

Schools would receive shorter inspections at least every three years, with the notification period ahead of inspection cut to the minimum possible period. As inspection will be more frequent, parents will also benefit from more up-to-date information about the quality of education received by their children.

I would like to focus on each of these three changes in turn; cutting the notification period for inspection to a minimum; increasing the frequency of inspection; and introducing shorter, sharper "intelligent inspections", and set out in more detail what they will mean to parents, teachers and schools.

We aim to cut the notification period for inspectors to a minimum.

Inspection should already be less burdensome for schools. But despite Ofsted's exhortations, much of the current burden on schools arises from the extensive preparation for inspection that many schools undertake, amounting in some cases to well over a thousand working days. Teachers'

time is one of the country's most precious resources and ought not to be wasted writing documentation that has no relevance to what happens in the classroom. That is why we intend to give minimal notice of inspection so that it becomes a regular part of school business, rather than a long-anticipated trauma.

We plan to increase the frequency of inspection to at least once every three years. I believe our current cycle of one inspection at least every six years may be too long a gap to be able to present a truly accurate picture of a school. Following the publication of the Government's Green Paper Every Child Matters, it is clear that we shall have to do more to report on the care arrangements for children and young people. In some cases, a child can go through a school without it undergoing an Ofsted inspection. By increasing the frequency of inspection, we will be able to provide more up-to-date and timely information to parents and policy-makers on the quality of individual schools.

The third major proposed change to the inspection framework will be the move to shorter, sharper, inspections. A six-year gap between inspections is too long, but if we are to visit schools more often we must do it in a less burdensome way. Therefore, I am proposing that the number of days inspectors spend in schools during two three-yearly inspections will be no more than half the inspector days currently required to undertake one inspection. Each one will last for two days, not five, and the teams will consist of between one and five inspectors. To put it this way, the objective will be not to map the entire genome of a school but to make sure that its central nervous system is in place and working well.

The new inspection reports will likewise be shorter and sharper and finely tuned to concentrate on what really matters in a school, not to report in detail on everything with little differentiation.

Changes of the magnitude that I am proposing will require legislation. But with a fair wind behind us, we could introduce the new inspection arrangements from autumn 2005.

I look forward to hearing your views on the proposals that I have outlined.

I do not profess to having all the answers. But it is right for Ofsted to set out a vision of how inspection needs to evolve if it is to continue to serve the country as well in its second decade as it did in its first.

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