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Good schools at risk of sliding

Slimmer inspections criticised. Warwick Mansell reports

STANDARDS in good schools could deteriorate as a result of proposed new government guidelines underlining the autonomy of headteachers and governing bodies, inspectors and advisers have warned.

A draft code of practice on schools' relationships with their local authorities suggests that

successful schools could receive only one formal visit a year from council inspection and advisory staff.

Otherwise, they would be left to manage their own affairs, with data including test and exam results, and Office for Standards in Education visits, as the checks on their performance.

The draft code, currently out for consultation, is part of the Government's drive to encourage local authorities to focus on their worst- performing schools. It does not affect OFSTED inspections.

But the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants, which represents 2,500 council advisers, OFSTED inspectors and private consultants, is concerned it could make problems harder to spot.

Currently, the association says, many local authorities visit successful schools - classed as such on the basis of OFSTED reports and consistently hitting improvement targets - once a term.

As well as advising them on target-setting and other school improvement issues, the visits can play an informal inspection role, helping to inform the authority when a school might need extra attention.

For example, under the revised system, the key mechanism for identifying a decline in teaching quality would be pupils' test results.

But they might not show up difficulties for months, or even years, the association claims.

John Chowcat, NAEIAC gneral secretary, said: "Although a school may be classed as successful, it will not necessarily always stay in that category.

"Sometimes, key personnel such as the head, or a senior teacher, will change. Their decision-making could be affected by stress, or problems at home. Teaching quality could decline, for whatever reason.

"Statistics will show up problems, but much further down the road. An experienced adviser, on the other hand, could spot the problem early and make sure the school took action to address it."

Mr Chowcat said NAEIAC was not against the Government principle of intervention in inverse proportion to success, where authorities concentrate time and resources on problem schools.

But cutting visits to successful schools down to one a year, he said, was a "step too far". The association would like at least two visits a year.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said that any move to reduce the involvement of local authority advisers in successful schools was welcome.

Local authorities too often wasted their own and heads' time visiting schools regardless of whether they were successful.

Even without visiting a school, they still had access to schools' own evaluation of performance, including qualitative observation of teaching, and parental surveys.

A Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman said authorities had many ways of checking on a school's progress without visiting it, including telephone conversations and other "informal" contacts with schools.

She added: "The self-managed school is the key unit for raising standards. The more it is successful, the more it should be left to run its own affairs."

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