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It's time fora new Ofsted

"I CAN promise that the school will receive the Rolls-Royce of inspections but that will be no consolation to those crushed beneath its wheels." These immortal words were uttered by a registered Ofsted inspector on his arrival at a Wandsworth primary.

But that was in 1995. The over-zealous "Regi" no longer works for Ofsted. Neither does his former boss, Chris Woodhead. Today's Ofsted appears to be a more benign organisation led by an almost emollient chief inspector, David Bell. Though not complacent, he emphasises that only 5 per cent of lessons are now unsatisfactory, and he likes to tease audiences by asking:

"Whatever happened to poor teaching?"

Nevertheless, many teachers insist that Ofsted's reign of terror continues; anyone who doubts that should check the blood pressure of a soon-to-be-inspected headteacher. The news that Charles Clarke appears to favour lighter-touch and less frequent inspections may therefore prompt some rejoicing. But perhaps Ofsted's 10th anniversary should be marked by a more fundamental reappraisal.

Some critics would happily scrap the inspectorate, of course. Although Ofsted was introduced by John Major's government, they see it as throwback to the days of Thatcherism, when all professions were regarded as a "conspiracy against the laity". They also argue that inspection is more subjective than Ofsted's clipboard-carriers would ever admit.

Both arguments have validity. Even so, there can be no return to the pre-Ofsted system where schools were monitored by HMIs (once every few decades, if that) and by LEA advisers who sometimes developed over-cosy relationships with schools.

Inspecting schools every six to 10 years would be unsatisfactory, too. Instead, what is needed is a system of more regular and demonstrably objective inspections that maintains standards without destroying morale. Schools in poorer areas also need to be more confident that inspectors will allow for the social problems they have to contend with.

As one exhausted head said this week: "Being in special measures is ultimately constructive, but the process is very destructive. It would make more sense to help struggling schools rather than publicly humiliate them."

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