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Chief inspector drags watchdog into the spotlight

February is a busy month for any chief inspector. His annual report is a wake-up call to ministers and teachers. And with more failing schools, this year's report brought charges that the Government's standards drive was faltering.

But David Bell didn't rest there. His new "short sharp shock" inspections have kept him in the news for two weeks. His plan to turn two months of pre-inspection trepidation and overplanning into two nail-biting days won him approving headlines. Inspectors may see less fresh paint when they call almost unannounced, but they should get a more realistic picture.

"Schools to get just 48 hours' warning of Ofsted visit," said the Daily Telegraph, while the Daily Mail warned that, "Schools will face lightning raids."

Mr Bell wants to cut the bureaucracy associated with inspections by reducing the time teachers spend preparing for them. David Miliband, school standards minister, worried that six-yearly inspections leave schools with too few checks. And teachers' leaders have often argued for more self-evaluation. So this clever package covered all the bases by combining less notice, more frequency and shorter inspections.

It also played to a mood that there is too much bureaucracy ('the proposals would save the equivalent of putting an extra 1,000 teachers into English state schools," Mr Bell told journalists).

As he sparred with John Bangs, the National Union of Teacher's head of education, on the Today programme, he even won the "common sense" seal of approval from the irascible presenter John Humphrys, whose tone of voice is more telling than any 1,000-word editorial. This despite Mr Bangs's best effort on behalf of staffrooms across the country, who might take some convincing that three-yearly inspections are a good thing.

The Times suggested that it was now "A for ambush" and noted approvingly (if ominously for some) that Mr Bell was making "similar points" to Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector, but doing so "more persuasively". And as Mr Bell swaps the "searchlight for the laser" few can doubt he has put Ofsted centre stage once again in the drive to raise school standards.

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