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With 'critical friends' like these, who needs local officers?

Meeting your "critical friend" is less like a chat with an old pal and more like a pleasant version of a school inspection.

So says Ray Priest, head of the Bristol academy. He is one of the first heads in England to pilot the Government approach.

Mr Priest contacted the Department for Education and Skills last year to ask whether the department could find someone to act as his adviser and assist him with target-setting.

The DfES contracted Des Smith, head of All Saints school in Dagenham, east London, to be a "critical friend". Mr Smith has spent four days at the Bristol academy since January.

Although the heads say they get on well and have passed a pleasant Saturday together, they stress that the approach is challenging rather than chummy.

Mr Smith has already proposed 5 per cent tougher targets for the Bristol academy's GCSE and Year 9 test results.

Mr Priest said: "It's like having an inspection but without the apprehension. If it wasn't challenging there would be no reason to do it.

"When Des first came in he said, 'What you've got is good, but there are ways you could add more value.'

"One of the reasons why it has worked for us is that although we both work in urban schools, we're in different cities, so there is never a sense of competition."

Mr Smith said the experience was invaluable and denied the suggestion that heads lacked the rigour of local officers.

"Some authorities have been very good," he said. "But can all authorities say they have supported their schools in the way the headteachers would have wanted?"

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