Contrary to what some TES readers may believe, the Office for Standards in Education is as concerned about standards of inspection as it is about standards in schools. That is why we have kept the system under constant review and continually sought to improve the quality of inspection.
The evidence that underpins our decisions about changes comes from our own monitoring of inspections and reports, the questionnaires which are now sent to all schools after inspection and the letters we receive - including complaints. Sometimes such evidence sparks major change, such as the revision to the Framework in April 1996. At other times it has led to less fundamental but none the less significant improvements such as the reduction in the demand for paperwork from schools.
Right now, OFSTED has reached a landmark. Every maintained secondary school in England has been inspected. By this time next year the same will be true of every nursery, primary and special school. Even our critics, I trust, will allow us a measure of self-satisfaction over that achievement. Many of them didn't believe OFSTED could do it within the four-year deadline set by Parliament.
This transition period between the first cycle and the new arrangements, under which schools will be inspected at least once in six years, offers an important opportunity to continue the process of review and revision. We are planning changes which affect all phases of the inspection system: the procedures for arranging inspections, the inspection process itself and the quality assurance arrangements.
Some of these improvements have been made possible by changes to the law through the 1997 Education Act, while others may need further amendments to statute or regulation.
One significant improvement, which does not require legislation, is the planned reduction of the period of notice of inspection from five terms to two. Moreover, the actual date of inspection will be known between one and one-and-a-half terms in advance, and this will apply to all schools inspected from September 1998.
These changes should reduce the stress on teachers which the current very long notice seems to generate. They will also remove an inequality by treating all schools the same. We also hope - expect - that local education authorities and heads will curtail the elaborate and wasteful preparation for inspection they often demand of their staff. We will be looking at further reducing the demand for paperwork.
Some improvements can start sooner - in September. This is particularly true of those changes concerned with the process of inspection.
OFSTED intends to: * Limit the amount of time an individual teacher is observed in any one day. Currently, some teachers in small primary schools are observed all day. We plan to limit the observation time to about 50 per cent of the day, with 75 per cent as an absolute upper limit. This should reduce the stress on individual teachers.
* Direct inspectors to offer feedback to individual teachers in all schools. Although this already happens in many inspections, it is at the discretion of the inspectors and is not universal practice. Such feedback is a perfectly proper part of inspection and is something teachers want and deserve.
* Provide headteachers with a confidential profile of the quality of teaching observed in each lesson for each teacher. It is fairer to all teachers and will give heads more useful information than the existing code of practice for reporting on very good and poor teaching.
* Require the inspectors to report on the actions taken by the school since the previous inspection and evaluate any improvements made. This relies on information from the school on its progress over time. It should go some way towards undermining the criticism of inspection as a mere snapshot.
For the last change to be effective, much will depend on the capacity of the school to identify its strengths and weaknesses and the progress made in improving standards. OFSTED has recently conducted a survey which shows that schools are rather better at identifying their strengths than their weaknesses, particularly where these relate to the quality of teaching.
These are just some of the changes to be introduced with the new inspection arrangements, mostly from September. We shall also introduce a "quality standard" which contractors must meet in order to win business.
To support this move, we shall insist that all team members have the necessary expertise and training to inspect particular subjects or aspects. In addition, the names of all team members and the subjects and aspects for which they were responsible are to be published in reports.
We shall be continuing our efforts to improve reports: particularly to have them written in jargon-free English, with the key issues for action clearly specified and closely linked to the evidence in the body of the report.
Finally, OFSTED has plans to strengthen its complaints procedures by introducing an appeals mechanism using an external, independent review body.
OFSTED has no doubts that inspection is a vital ingredient in raising standards. One way it can contribute is by feeding more data from inspection and details of good practice back into the system.
From next year, OFSTED plans to provide all schools annually with a statistical profile of their performance data over time, along with comparable data for England as a whole, the LEA and other similar schools. The LEAs will receive copies together with a statistical profile summarising the performance of all its schools.
Since April 1996, 94 per cent of schools have reported that their inspection was conducted effectively and professionally. That is a very encouraging response. But it does not mean there is no room for improvement.
I believe the initiatives above will go a considerable way towards strengthening the inspection system and quelling the anxieties expressed by schools.
Mike Tomlinson is director of inspection at OFSTED