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Did you know?

* The first national government inspectors - Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools (HMI) - were appointed in 1839

* Ofsted came into being in 1992. Most inspectors are independent contractors, or 'registered inspectors'

* Scottish inspectors visit primaries every seven years and secondaries every six, and have a responsibility to identify strengths as well as weaknesses

* English inspections were overhauled in September 2003, when Ofsted introduced a framework to shorten inspections and increase the emphasis on self-evaluation

* From late next year, inspectors are expected to make two-day visits every three years. Ofsted estimates that the time saved by schools in not having to prepare for inspections will be equivalent to employing an extra 1,000 staff in English state schools

* Schools will have little or no notice of these visits

What is it that teachers most dread? Classroom tantrums? Grumpy parents? Mountains of marking? All daunting, but research has shown that inspection tops the list - perhaps with good reason. Last year, the number of schools in England in special measures rose for the first time in several years: 160 schools failed their routine Ofsted inspection, bringing the total on the failing list to 282. Projected figures suggest the trend will continue.

In Autumn 2002, just 2.7 per cent of schools failed their inspections; by the first half of the 2004 academic year this had risen to 4.5 per cent.

Changes to the way inspections are carried out have prompted critics to accuse Ofsted of moving the goalposts so that more schools fail. Many point to the Scottish system - with its emphasis on strengths rather than weaknesses - as an alternative model.

A brief history

School inspectors have been doing the rounds for almost 200 years. The first two national government inspectors - Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools (HMI) - were appointed in 1839; by the start of the 20th century their numbers had grown to 349. But by the late 1950s, inspections had fizzled out, with the number of inspectors failing to keep pace with the growth of secondary schools, and the remaining HMI adopting a more advisory role. It was rare for teachers to meet an HMI; they might be inspected once or twice in the course of their careers, if that. During the 1970s, most local education authorities tried out a range of self-evaluation schemes, and inspection continued to take a back seat, but in 1983 the decision to publish inspection reports moved it back up the political agenda.

In 1992, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) was born, and regular inspection became compulsory for state-funded schools. It is a government department, although it has no minister, and its main job is the independent inspection of schools in England.

In recent years, Ofsted has also taken on the review of local education authorities, initial teacher training courses, the nursery sector, independent schools and LEA-funded youth services. And since 2001 it has been responsible for inspecting sixth-form and further education colleges.

As if that's not enough, Ofsted also registers and regulates all early years childcare, including 100,000 childminders.

Across the borders

Ofsted is responsible for inspection only in England and for Ministry of Defence schools overseas. In Wales, inspections are carried out by Estyn (which means "extend" or "stretch"), funded by, but independent of, the National Assembly for Wales. But it's really in Scotland - which has had a state inspection system since 1840 - that things are different. Here, HM Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) does a similar range of work to Ofsted, but within a framework that many Scottish heads say is more user-friendly.

In particular, Scottish inspectors - who visit primaries every seven years and secondaries every six - must identify strengths as well as weaknesses, and discuss ways of working with a school to make improvements.

Starting with a report by the local authority, a Scottish inspection usually means a "light touch" visit from HMIE as long as things are going well: only schools reported to have serious issues are subject to more detailed inspections. Inspectors evaluate seven separate "quality indicators", ranging from curriculum and attainment to ethos and resources, rather than passing an overall judgment. So there are no "failing" verdicts and no "special measures". But if a school is considered "unsatisfactory" in some elements, it can expect a return visit within six months.

In an HMIE survey in 2001-2, 76 per cent of headteachers, staff and school boards claimed to be satisfied or very satisfied with the inspection system, praising in particular the positive attitude of the inspectors, and the accuracy of their reporting.

The only problem seems to be inconsistency among the 32 local authorities.

"According to the inspectors, schools should be given free access to their local authority report," says Bill McGregor, general secretary designate of the Headteachers Association of Scotland. "But some schools don't get to see it. They're working in the dark. They have no idea at what level their inspection is going to be. The system should be fair, provided authorities and schools have an agreed agenda, but at the moment it's unfair."

The inspection of schools in Scotland may now also involve the Care Commission and Audit Scotland (the spending watchdog), which get involved in inspecting education authorities. HMIE has also just been given the job of inspecting children's services, for which they are recruiting inspectors with health and social work backgrounds.

On the job or out of date?

Even though it's a government department, few Ofsted inspectors are government officials. Traditionally, HMI were senior professionals, drafted into the civil service because of their subject or sector expertise. But when Ofsted was created, it cut the number of full-time inspectors from 480 to 175, using these as "troubleshooters" for special cases rather than to run day-to-day inspections. Ofsted, which employs HMIs, last year appointed another batch, bringing their numbers up to 250. More than 1,000 people applied for 50 advertised posts.

So while inspectors in Scotland are employed by an executive agency set up at arm's length from the Scottish Executive, in England most are independent contractors, or part-time "registered inspectors", commissioned by Ofsted. Some schools welcome the opportunity to talk things through with an independent outsider. "We'd made a lot of innovations, and perhaps moved too quickly," says the deputy head of a Derbyshire primary. "It was good to have an outsider look at what we were doing and provide a yardstick."

But critics point to the system of contracts as a key flaw in the inspection framework. "Instead of paying high-quality salaries for high-quality people, Ofsted relies on handing out work to the cheapest bidder," says Graham Jones, co-ordinator of Exeter University's school improvement unit, and formerly a registered inspector. He points out that many registered inspectors get paid substantially less than consultant rates for LEA advisers. "So you end up with inspectors who have no recent or relevant experience. They've never worked as heads or deputies; they're just not at the same level of professional debate as the schools they visit."

The team allocated to each inspection may be as small as two or three or as large as 15, depending on the size of the school, and each will include a lay inspector with no experience of teaching or school management. Their function, says Ofsted, is to "provide an element of balance and common sense".

When an inspector calls

The nuts and bolts of an inspection are fairly straightforward. At present, the team spends time gathering evidence about how a school is performing.

They look at the quality of teaching and management; the nature of the school, how it works and what standards it is reaching; what improvements have been made and what it should be trying to do. Parents and governors are given the chance to have their say and, after receiving the inspectors'

report, the school has to publish an action plan to show how it will implement any recommendations. If the school gets a "satisfactory", or better, verdict, the head, senior staff and governors get an oral report shortly after the inspection and, once the plan has been published, life can return to normal. Some schools even find the momentum gathered in the build-up to an Ofsted visit can be sustained and is a long-term boost.

But an "unsatisfactory" verdict makes things more complicated. If the school is deemed borderline, the inspector will flag up "serious weaknesses" and make detailed recommendations for sorting them out. HMI is called in to monitor progress and the LEA has to commit resources to help the school pull round. If the problems are not resolved, the school is put into "special measures". Alternatively, inspectors might decide the problems are so severe that the school should be put straight into special measures. Then the school's action plan is sent to the DfES, with a timetable for improvement, and HMI is called in once a term with six monthly re-inspections. The LEA may change the governors, and the DfES might insist on new management, possibly by appointing an acting head.

A school usually pulls out of special measures within two years, but if it fails to make progress it will be closed. The long-term effects often outlive the label. Schools can suffer bad publicity, a collapse of morale and financial crisis, and some find it a struggle to restore the confidence of staff and parents. But for others, special measures provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get things right. "Going into special measures transformed our school," admits a head of department at a Midlands comprehensive. "It was an acknowledgment that we needed help - and that help was then provided through support, resources and advice. The aftermath of an inspection can be a painful time, but at the end of it the school will be stronger. Schools may not like what they hear, but the fact is that Ofsted is usually right."

Making your case

Reports can be challenged, although few complaints lead to a change of judgment. Schools can complain if they believe the inspector has not followed Ofsted's code of conduct - for example, minimising the stress of an inspection, maintaining a "productive dialogue" and being honest and accurate - but the complaint must go first to the inspector; only if it then remains unresolved can the school take its case to Ofsted.

A light touch?

Last September, Ofsted introduced a new framework billed as a "light touch". It shortened visits and increased the emphasis on self-evaluation.

Inspectors were also given new criteria. So while standards for single lessons remained the same, the standards for judging a whole school became tougher. Schools are now judged to be unsatisfactory overall if 10 per cent of teaching is unsatisfactory. In the first half-term of the new regime, 46 schools were placed in special measures and 39 were judged to have serious weaknesses - respective rises of 35 per cent and 30 per cent over the same period in the previous year. Although some of the rise could be put down to a batch of re-inspections of struggling schools, many observers believe it was the result of a sharper, more stringent approach.

Feather light?

This light touch trend is set to accelerate under yet more changes, planned for Autumn 2005. Inspectors are expected to spend two days in schools every three years, dramatically cutting the number of inspector days (calculated as the total number of days all the members of the team spend on site) from about 80 at present for a large secondary to around 10. Classroom observation will be limited and the final report, received within a week of inspection, will be only four pages long.

Perhaps most controversially, visits will be subject to little or no notice so inspectors can get a warts-and-all picture of the school. Changes are also proposed to the make-up of the teams. Although independent inspectors will still form the core of the inspection,they will often be led by HMI, particularly in secondary schools. There will also be an emphasis on using more serving senior professionals - heads and deputy heads - as part of inspection teams, and the requirement for using lay inspectors will be relaxed.

Warts and all

Despite complaints about the extra paperwork, most heads seem to welcome the increased emphasis on self-evaluation. Those who have introduced a rolling programme of self-evaluation rather than waiting to fill in the Ofsted form (the S4) have found it an increasingly useful day-to-day management tool, as well as ammunition to impress the inspectors. But in a recent TES survey, more than half of secondary heads and two in five primary heads feared they and their staff lacked the skills to make a success of self-evaluation. One in 25 secondaries and a few primaries admitted to having no system of self-evaluation at all.

Faster, further, higher...

The new streamlined system should cut the cost of inspections, reduce the burden on schools and free up resources. Without weeks of frenzied preparation, schools will have more time and energy for other things: Ofsted estimates that the time saved by not preparing for inspections will be equivalent to employing an extra 1,000 staff in English state schools.

And the short visits will spare teachers repeated lesson observations and give a more realistic picture of life. Inspections will be "routine business", argues Ofsted, rather than a major disruption. The new framework will also create a more consistent, co-ordinated system to cover all education and care providers through the age ranges from 0-19. And including HMI in the inspection teams, it is argued, will also help ensure consistency.

... or leaner and meaner?

But unions claim short-notice inspections could put schools in an endless, exhausting state of inspection readiness. It will also mean practical changes: it will be difficult, for example, to organise parents' or governors' meetings. So inspectors will rely on a school's self-evaluation for getting a range of views, which means many schools upgrading the way they keep and present this kind of evidence. Teachers are also concerned that a fleeting visit will mean they could be judged on an unrepresentative lesson, and that inspectors will concentrate on areas of known weaknesses.

Or that a school's honest self-evaluation will backfire.

Peter Earley of the Institute of Education, University of London, says self-evaluation should be about more than just saving time. "It should be about having an opportunity to rectify weaknesses within the safe confines of the organisation." He suggests inspectors should be responsible for working with the school over several years to disseminate good practice rather than passing judgment and moving on. Broader issues such as quality in curriculum or school policy will have to be assessed separately. The proposals include a rolling programme of subject-specific inspections, with a full report every two or three years, using a sample of schools to reflect wider changes and using more inspection of schools in groups or pyramids.

But are there any alternatives to Ofsted?

Not really. Independent schools affiliated to the Independent Schools Council have their own inspectorate (the Independent Schools Inspectorate), but this too is monitored by Ofsted. And those that do not belong to the ISC are inspected solely by Ofsted. Although in the past this amounted to little more than monitoring visits, since last year the process has been more vigorous and broadly similar to that for state schools. Schools are judged against the regulations for registration of independent schools and can be required to produce an action plan for improvement. New schools are inspected before they can open and any school that fails to make recommended improvements can be shut down.

* The Ofsted website's ( "How We Work Section" outlines the inspection process and the new proposals.l Details of Scottish inspections at and for Wales at Inspecting Schools: holding schools to account and helping schools to improve, by Brian Wilcox and John Gray (Open University Press, pound;22.99, paperback).l "How Good is Our School?" HMIE, pound;25. Available from the Stationery Office (

Main text: Steven Hastings Illustration: Jan Martin Additional research: Sarah Jenkins. Next week: This year's winners of Write Away, The TES's literary competition

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