An inspector answers...

OFSTEDhas replied to education select committee MPs' questions about its role ahead of their inquiry into its accountability. Frances Rafferty reports

This week the Education Select Committee starts its inquiry into the Office for Standards in Education. It will investigate its accountability, the reliability of the inspectors' judgments and its value for money. To set the ball rolling, OFSTED has sent the MPs a brief, answering some of their questions.

Whom does OFSTED inspect?

* all state-funded schools * private schools which receive children with statements * publicly-funded nursery schools * pupil referral units * local education authorities * teacher training institutions Who are the inspectors?

There are 1,225 registered inspection team leaders. They must re-register every three years. The average age of a registered inspector is 52. There are 9,090 team inspectors and 1,310 lay inspectors. All registered and team inspectors must have a higher education qualification and qualified teacher status, recent experience in schools and successful experience of management - for example as a head, deputy, head of a large department or lecturer in teacher training.

They must sit a one-day exam to assess their competence for the job and then take a course. Registered inspectors must attend courses on professional development up to five days a year and when requested by OFSTED. In-service training is provided for team and lay inspectors on a voluntary basis.

How many times are individual teachers observed during a school inspection?

Data from inspections carried out between November 1997 and July 1998 show primary teachers were observed, on average, seven times and secondary teachers three times. A limit has been placed on the proportion of a day any teacher can be observed. This has been set at 50 per cent, with an upper limit of 70 per cent. In exceptional circumstances, and with the agreement of the teacher, this can be exceeded.

Who inspects the inspectors?

HM Inspectorate, made up of 200 civil servants - permanent members of OFSTED's staff - monitor the quality of school inspections. They drop in unannounced, or at short notice, during the inspection process, usually on the final or penultimate day. HMIs will look at the team's recorded evidence and may attend meetings between the inspectors and teachers and the governing body. An OFSTED database records the track record of all inspectors and contractors.

OFSTED also issues schools with post-inspection surveys. The National Foundation for Educational Research has been commissioned to undertake a statistical study of the consistency of inspectors' reports, patterns of school effectiveness and the nature of the inspection process.

How many complaints does OFSTED receive?

In the 1997-8 financial year, 7,612 inspections were carried out and a total of 231 complaints were made. Just over a third were about the conduct of the inspectors, a third on the judgments made in the report and the rest a variety of issues.

OFSTED has an internal complaints procedure and recently appointed Elaine Rassaby as an independent inspections ombudsman.

Where a complaint is fully or partially upheld, the school receives a letter which it can publish and circulate to parents. The `next inspection by the registered inspector is monitored by HM Inspectorate. In extreme cases an inspector can be de-registered. In the past year, five team inspectors have had their accreditation withdrawn following complaints.

How many contracting organisations for school inspections are there?

There are 223 approved contractors, with 20 receiving the majority of contracts.

How often are local education authorities inspected?

This year 14 local authorities will have been inspected, next year 24 and 30 in 2000. They will then be inspected on a five-year cycle.

The Audit Commission will contribute to all local authority inspections.

Edited version of OFSTED's Q and A response to MPs

OFSTED on OFSTED The inspectorate's briefing for MPS:

* there are 1,225 registered inspection team leaders, with an average age of 52; * during an average inspection primary teachers are observed seven times and secondary teachers three times; * in 1997-98 a total of 7,612 inspections took place, prompting 231 complaints; * there are 223 contractors approved to carry out inspections, but 20 contractors dominate the "market"; * this year, 14 local authorities will have been inspected, with a further 24 inspections due next year.

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